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Michigan forces enough mid-range shots that its defense could lead the way to a title - The Washington Post


From left, Michigan's Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Jordan Poole make it tough for opponents such as Bruno Fernando of Maryland to get easy looks around the basket. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

By Matthew Giles

March 15 at 11:00 AM

Coach John Beilein has long been known as an innovator on offense, fielding teams capable of burying an opponent with perimeter shooting. But in the past two seasons, the key to his success at Michigan has shifted to defense.

The Wolverines’ roster includes a blend of positionless players such as Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Isaiah Livers and Ignas Brazdeikis, each of whom is capable of switching ball screens and defending anyone on the court. Add in guard Zavier Simpson, one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, and Michigan can aggressively force teams off the perimeter and contain dribble-drives with their athleticism.

Should an opposing player get into the middle, he will have to contend with 7-foot-1 junior Jon Teske, who has transformed into one of Division I’s top shot-blockers.

Teske’s effectiveness at the rim coupled with so many athletes on the perimeter forces opponents into the most inefficient shot in basketball — the midrange two-pointer. The Division I average for points per midrange shot is 0.72, according to BartTorvik.com, compared to 1.20 points per shot at the rim and 1.03 points per three-point attempt.

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One opponent, Villanova, ranks third in Division I this season in three-point shot rate, with 54 percent of its attempts from the field coming from beyond the arc. But just a third of the Wildcats’ attempts were from deep during an early November nonconference loss to Michigan. The Wolverines forced Jay Wright’s team into six midrange shots, of which the Wildcats made two.

Similarly, during an early Big Ten win, Michigan hamstrung Purdue into attempting 10 midrange shots — or 34 percent, well above its 2019 average of 22.3 percent. The Boilermakers made just 14 percent of those looks.

Of the top 10 teams in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency rating, the Wolverines are the best at generating a high percentage of midrange jumpers. Michigan’s opponents have taken a midrange jump shot on 36 percent of their possessions — second to only Baylor among power-conference teams, and sixth in Division I — with a conversion rate of 31 percent.

Six of the past eight NCAA champions have ranked in the top 100 of BartTorvik.com’s database ranking the defensive share of midrange attempts. Each team, from Connecticut in 2011 to Duke in 2015 and North Carolina in 2017, forced its opponents to take a high percentage of attempts from midrange. If the search is further expanded, 25 of the 32 Final Four teams also ranked within the top 100.

Per BartTorvik.com, the Wolverines compare most favorably to five squads that reached the Final Four within the past decade: Last season’s Michigan team, Oklahoma in 2016, Florida and Wisconsin in 2014, and UCLA in 2008.

UCLA’s defensive share of midrange attempts is unclear, as rankings don’t go back that far, but Wisconsin, Florida and 2017-18 Michigan all ranked within the top 20 nationally in opponents’ midrange shot rate. (Oklahoma is the one outlier, as just 29 percent of its opponents’ attempts were from the midrange.)

For years, the Big Ten squad was praised solely for its offense, but now equipped with a renowned defense, the Wolverines are primed to reach Minneapolis.

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