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Sunday Stats: Defense Wins Championships

The most impressive performances last week came on the defensive end of the court

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It was a good week for the Big Ten. We won won the Gavitt Games, none of our fourteen teams picked up any bad losses, and there were some impressive wins. It’s hard to say who looked best. Ohio State, Indiana, Nebraska, and Wisconsin all picked up wins over power conference schools. But I think the two teams that impressed me the most were Michigan and Iowa. For both teams, the story is their defense.

New-Look Beilein Ball Continues

For those of you who are misguided enough to think that November is about football and not basketball, you may have missed Michigan going to Villanova and blasting the doors off the defending national champions. Yes, Villanova just lost to Furman, so Jay Wright’s squad in the post Brunson-Bridges might not be that good. I don’t care if they go under .500 in the Big East, what Michigan did was still impressive.

I said at the beginning of the year that Michigan’s Achilles heel was going to be outside shooting. In their summer trip to Europe, the Wolverines didn’t look good when they weren’t shooting well, and they didn’t shoot well very often. And Michigan is very much a bad shooting team. Their team free throw percentage is close to No. 300 nationally. That’s 2018 Rutgers-level bad.

But it turns out that you don’t need shooting when you can put up numbers like this:

  • Opponents’ effective FG: 37.0% (National average is 50.1%)
  • Defensive rebounding rate: 79.2% (National average is 70.7%)
  • Opponents’ FT to FG ratio: .187 (National average is .345)

In other words, Michigan’s defense makes teams miss, and when they miss, the Wolverines grab the rebound almost every time. Combine that with not putting opponents on the line (Michigan’s opponents only score 13.8% of their points from the charity stripe), and you get a team that is capable of holding opponents to 44, 37, 46, and 61 points.

Now, to be fair, part of the reason those scores are so low is because the Wolverines play a slow tempo. But you can’t just dismiss it because “tempo doesn’t matter.” In this case it does matter: Michigan’s tempo is so slow is because of the way they play defense. Teams have to use the whole shot clock and still can’t get a good look. And in fact, that’s happening almost every time down the floor because the only defensive category where the Wolverines are mediocre is the category that leads to shorter possessions: turning teams over.

Speaking of turnovers, let’s take a look at this list of characteristics that defined pre-2018 John Beilein teams:

  • Shoot a lot of threes
  • Don’t turn the ball over
  • Run a beautiful, hyper-efficient offense
  • Struggle on the glass
  • Play mediocre defense

From that list, only the second item still applies, which is how Michigan can still put up halfway decent offensive numbers despite being an abysmal shooting team.

So how far can Michigan go with an incredible defense and an good-not-great offense? Last year they rattled of 14 wins in a row, won the Big Ten Tournament, and made it to the national title game. At this point, Michigan is the clear favorite to win the league in 2019.

Maybe There Is a ‘D’ in ‘Iowa’

If Michigan’s story is one of continuity with last season, Iowa is the exact opposite. Last year a young Hawkeyes squad put up typical Fran McCaffrey-era offensive stats (No. 19 on KenPom, third best in the Big Ten). In 2016, a similar caliber of offense took the Hawkeyes to 22 wins and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Hawkeyes finished five games under .500 overall and sat at home in March (though oddly enough in their final game they took Michigan to OT; basketball is weird). The reason? A defense that was ranked No. 242.

Last year, Iowa’s best win was over No. 70 Wisconsin. This year the Hawkeyes have already taken down No. 16 Oregon, and while KenPom doesn’t like Connecticut much, the fact that Iowa was able to beat them by 19 in a building packed with Husky fans is impressive.

The difference is defense. It’s still not great, but it’s respectable (No. 63 on KenPom), and if your offense is good then a respectable defense should be enough to go dancing. 2014 Iowa was a Tournament team, and that defense was ranked No. 77.

So at this point with two resume-boosting wins in Madison Square Garden (maybe one-and-a-half; depends how good you expect UCONN to end up being) we should expect Iowa to be an NCAA Tournament team this year, right?


Here are two reasons to be skeptical.

First, Iowa still turns the ball over way too much. At this point, they’re turning it over even more than they did last year, but all other things equal you’d expect that because everyone turns the ball over more often early in the year. But holding steady at last year’s awful turnover rate should not be the goal. The Hawkeyes were No. 305 in the country in getting the ball stolen last season. This year so far? No. 330. There are only 351 teams in D-I. Oof.

The good news is that turnovers are coachable, and with last year’s youth and this year’s continuity, I’d expect that number to improve throughout the year. But it hasn’t yet.

The second reason to doubt the Hawkeyes is that their biggest defensive improvement has come in the category of opponents’ three-point percentage. Last year 37.6%; this year 26.5%. Opponent three point percentage is one of the areas of basketball that a team has the least control over. In other words, to use fancy statistical terminology, that’s where randomness can bite you in the ass. The uncertainty at this point is whether last year was randomly bad or if this year’s improvement is randomly good.

Rutgers 3-Point Percentage Watch

We’re adding a new feature to Sunday Stats where we track how well everyone’s favorite BTT 14-seed is shooting from behind the arc. Last season, Rutgers was 29.6%, one of only eight teams to finish below 30%. Everybody thinks Rutgers was terrible at basketball when they were really just terrible at shooting. If the shooting gets fixed, the Big Ten might find itself with its first non-Rutgers 14-seed ever.

So how are they doing? Well, through November 17 the Scarlet Knights are putting up a blistering 45.8% (!!!!!) from deep. If anything like that holds up, Rutgers fans won’t need to burn a vacation day to fly into Chicago Wednesday morning.

Go Big Ten!