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Michigan’s Elite Defense: Is There A Secret Sauce?

Michigan is off to a 10-0 start in large part because of its stifling defense - what’s happening and will it last?

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Once when I was young, I asked my mom whether her signature Kashmiri lamb had any secret, special sauce. I had been watching too much Food Network, and kept hearing Ina Garten and Bobby Flay go on about secret sauces and special recipes passed down from generation to generation. My mom predictably responded by telling me to “turn off that nonsense and do my studies.” She then added, “It’s no one special thing. All the same things we always cook with - but the combination of it all makes it tasty. The quality of each ingredient makes it special. But there’s no hidden secret.”

Watching Michigan basketball this past week took me back to Mom’s kitchen. Michigan bested three top 25 teams, dominated two perennial national contenders, won on the road, at home, and in between, and shown no real signs of letting up. As the team has cleared every hurdle in its path to national legitimacy, every Michigan fan out there is asking: how is this happening? What is the secret sauce?

Well, just like that tender, gingery, salty goodness that is Mom’s lamb - there is no special sauce. There is no one thing and there are no secrets. Michigan is just putting all the elements together in a way never seen before in Ann Arbor - at least not in early December.

Over the next few weeks, while the team takes care of a few cupcakes on the schedule, we’ll break down the ingredients of Michigan’s sauce. What’s happening? Why are they better than ever? And can they keep it going? We’ll go through the rotation and the psyche, some Xs and Os on offense, and a deep dive into some player development.

But today, let’s start with one of the more unexpected and most significant elements of Michigan’s defense.

Opponent Field Goal Percentage

Michigan is playing defense - to the tune of #1 in defensive efficiency on Kenpom. This elite defensive effort is a continuation of progress made last season. With an adjusted defensive efficiency of 90.5 in 2017-’18, Michigan had the third-ranked Kenpom defense in the nation by season’s end.

Indeed, many of the pieces of this year’s defensive puzzle are familiar. You’ll recognize the transition and 3pt gaps, the good ball screen defense, and the defensive rebounding. But one major change has made the team’s defense lethal.

Michigan is making opponents miss.

Until this year, Michigan was limiting shot attempts and transition chances, but opponents were shooting relatively the same percentage from the field as in past years. This season, however, the Wolverines are holding opponents to 35.9% 2-pt shooting and 38.8% effective FG rate. For context, those numbers were 46.8% and 47.7% respectively last year - when Michigan’s defense was ranked third in the country.

The first explanation is that Michigan is limiting easy, high-percentage attempts. If you watch the Wolverines play defense, you’ll see opponents taking a bevy of contested twos or threes. Every Michigan player is staying in front of their man and limiting easy drives to the basket. Last year, a lot of attention was focused on Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson limiting penetration and shutting down opposing backcourts. But this year, their teammates have joined the party. Iggy Brazdeikis is an above average defender who has been able to shuffle his feet and stay with his man, whether he’s playing the 2 or the 4 or was switched onto the opposing point guard. Same story with Jordan Poole, who is moving laterally in a way we never saw last year and no longer losing his mark on pin downs or back cuts.

Contesting shots in a meaningful, consistent way is only possible when your defense does not have any glaring individual holes. If a team can exploit one or two guys on the floor, the quickness of your other three defenders or your deft help defense won’t matter. Michigan learned that firsthand last year. With Duncan Robinson at the 4, the team was often at a disadvantage against opposing forwards with more size, more athleticism, and frankly a more varied skill set. Big, strong men like Luke Maye of UNC or Vince Edwards of Purdue could bully Duncan inside or beat him off the dribble and the whole Michigan defense would fall apart. This year, with Brazdeikis and Livers playing all the minutes at the four position, that gaping hole no longer exists for exploiting.

Similarly, at the five position, centers in the Big Ten should know that their days of feasting on the Michigan front court are over. Moe Wagner, despite his savant-like offensive qualities and astonishing ability to relegate Nick Ward to the floor, was a liability in the post game. Ethan Happ, Derek Pardon, Isaac Haas, and even Cameron Krutwig easily had their way with Wagner. The only real obstacle they faced was the 10-13 minute stint in the game when 7-footer Jon Teske filled in for Wagner. Well, this year, Teske is no longer the understudy and Michigan’s post-defense is no longer a sieve. Teske can wall-up without fouling and his length coupled with his strength keeps opposing big men in check.

Finally, Michigan’s defense isn’t just contesting shots and avoiding individual mismatches - it is altering shots. Opposing coaches and players have said that when they do get into the lane, their decision making is inevitably impacted by the large man in their way. Teske and his teammates are walling up and changing shots at the rim. That explains the fact that Michigan tops the country in opposing 2pt FG %.

The icing on this beautiful, moist, layered cake of stifling defense (oops, I forgot this was a lamb curry metaphor) is Michigan’s block rate. Going back to 2013, here are Michigan’s nationwide Kenpom ranks for percentage of opposing shots blocked: 254, 308, 340, 308, 240, and 238. This year, that number is 103. Michigan is blocking shots like never before under John Beilein. A big part of that is Teske, who is averaging 2.1 blocks per game this season. But don’t underestimate the impact of Michigan’s other elite athletes - Charles Matthews, Isaiah Livers, and Iggy Brazdeikis have consistently chipped in too.

Can They Keep This Going?

The short answer is: yes, I think/thought so, but I’m really not sure. Michigan’s newfound ability to contest, alter, and block shots is not going away - it’s a product of the elite defensive personnel on the floor this year and will travel well on the road. But there are a couple reasons to question whether the past month’s performances are sustainable. For one, Jon Teske must be able to stay on the floor for Michigan to limit opponent FG %. If he is in foul trouble, a defensive lineup with Isaiah Livers or Austin Davis at the five is now much more vulnerable to post scoring and boasts much less rim protection prowess.

Second, we saw some cracks in the Wolverines’ defense in their win against South Carolina on Saturday. The Gamecocks shot 52.9% on twos, 45.5% on threes, and score 1.09 points per possession (the most PPP Michigan’s given up all year). Per UMHoops, South Carolina scored 44 of its 78 points in the paint and made 15 of 17 dunks and layups. Those points came on ball screen action but also in one-on-one matchups down low. South Carolina has the 151st ranked offense in the country - so not terribly good news there. But this could be the result of a fatigued Michigan team coming off four big-time games in a span of 10 days.

Lots of questions abound - but for now, it’s quite clear that Michigan’s defense has turned a corner in no small part because of the way they are making opponents miss more often - on the inside and the outside. There’s no secret to this Michigan’s team lamb, but be sure to taste the opponent FG% before you serve - it’s a key ingredient. Ahh, what is a metaphor anyways?