Dylan Burkhardt and I started blogging about basketball at almost exactly the same time--the start of the 2007-08 season. Since then, we've had a unique bond as bloggers (think United States-Great Britain in the world of international diplomacy). We don't do a lot of interviews with bloggers at TOC during basketball season due to the compact schedule between games, but for an in-state rivalry game we make an exception. I also answered some questions about MSU on his site. Below, I'm in bold.
It seems like it's been a bit of an up-and-then-down campaign for your guys: a 10-2 nonconference start based on some very good defense--even in the losses to Syracuse and then later to Kansas--followed by a 1-6 start in Big Ten play with almost no signs of defense. Outside of the heavily pro-offense trend in the Big Ten this year, what explains the dramatic uptick in opponents' scoring proficiency?
You hit the nail on the head. Michigan was slightly better than expected in non-conference play because of their better than expected defense. Fast forward to conference play and the defense has crumbled faster than most could expect. Michigan has the worst defense in conference play, allowing opponents to score 1.22 points per possession with a 60.6% effective field goal percentage. Michigan has played against some good offenses but it doesn't seem to matter who they play. Opposing teams are not just hitting perimeter jump shots (45% from three in Big Ten play) and getting to the free throw line (39.2% FTA/FGA ranks 10th in the Big Ten), they are also getting easy looks close to the basket. Michigan isn't forcing many turnovers and the defensive rebounding has been extremely inconsistent in conference play, ranging from good to terrible.
I don't have any specific reason for Michigan's defensive struggles, you can basically take your pick. Young teams generally struggle on the defensive end and Michigan is the youngest team in the league, starting three freshmen. However, it's tough to decipher a reason for the dramatic drop off from non-conference play. This is the team that defended Kansas and Syracuse as well as anyone during non-conference play and now can't stop anyone in the Big Ten. We've seen just about everything from slow defensive rotations, ticky-tack fouls, mental breakdowns on out of bounds plays, to just a sheer lack of communication and execution. Michigan State has struggled on offense at times this year but playing Michigan might be the cure.
More Q&A after the jump
Sticking with defense, MSU fans are always worried about opposing defensive schemes leading to Spartan turnovers (despite the recent improvement by the team in that department). How much should we expect the team to have to deal with the 1-3-1 zone--vs. man-to-man or maybe a 2-3 look?
Michigan will most likely start the game in a traditional man to man look. If that works, you will see it for the entire game. If it doesn't work, Michigan will experiment with a variety of zone looks that include both the 1-3-1 and the 2-3 zone. With the exception of the Kansas game, the 1-3-1 zone hasn't been all that effective this year and Michigan has rarely used it. With a little additional preparation time and Michigan's recent defensive struggles maybe we will see an entirely different game plan focusing on the zone. Michigan State turned the ball over a lot in both games versus Michigan last season, and will be playing without backup point guard Korie Lucious, so perhaps it might be a good time to roll the zone out and hope for the best.
Darius Morris has been the breakout star on offense, averaging 15.5 points and 7.0 assists per game. Where has Morris improved his game the most to help replace Manny Harris as the go-to guy in the back court? What weaknesses remain?
Morris has improved almost every aspect of his game from a year ago. As you mentioned, Michigan needed him to play a bigger role in the offense and, especially early on, he's answered the call as well as most could have hoped. He has struggled a bit over the last month or so as the consistent level of competition increased but there's still a lot to like about his game. He is one of the few players on Michigan's roster with the ability to take the ball to the hoop consistently, making 56% of his two point field goal attempts. He's not just a scorer either. As you can see by his assist numbers, he does a good job finding his teammates and creates a huge portion of Michigan's offense, assisting 49% of Michigan's made field goals while he's on the court.
That's not to say there are no negatives. The recent losing streak has been tough on Morris and he's looked visibly frustrated lately. At times, he lets the frustration get to him and tries to do a little too much while forcing the issue. He has the tendency to dribble the air out of the ball when the going gets tough and stall Michigan's offense. Morris also isn't a great three point shooter, connected on just 27% of his triples.
When Darius Morris is letting the offense come to him and playing under control rather than forcing up bad shots, he's fun to watch. Now he just needs to improve his consistency to the point where he plays under control every night.
What's the story on the freshmen? Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Jordan Morgan both seem to be nice surprises in terms of their ability to initiate scoring opportunities (both have usage rates over 20%), while Evan Smotrycz (3-point shooting) and Jon Horford (rebounding) are making more limited contributions. Expand on those stats-based observations, if you will.
Hardaway and Morgan have both played huge roles on this team as freshmen. Hardaway has much more ability to initiate scoring opportunities while Morgan is a little more opportunistic in his production.
Hardaway loves to shoot threes despite connecting on 30% of his attempts from long range. He does have the size and athleticism to do more than that but he needs to make attacking the basket and finding open midrange jumpers a larger priority. He'll dazzle Michigan fans with samples of these elements of his offensive game but he still tends to settle for threes a bit too often -- 114 three-point attempts to 89 two-point attempts.
Morgan isn't going to create his offense but he is a solid player that does a decent job of finishing off of his teammates' penetration. Morgan has great chemistry with Darius Morris and will be rewarded in transition for running the floor. At this point Morgan isn't a guy that you are going to throw the ball to on the block and tell him to make something happen. Morgan is an above average rebounder and one of the few Wolverines that will be aggressive attacking the offensive glass. His largest problem right now is that he is a below average defender and has picked up the nasty habit of picking up cheap fouls and ending up on the bench early in halves.
Smotrycz is 6-foot-9 and Michigan's starting four man but primarily a three point shooter. He's been a bit inconsistent shooting the ball (38% on the year) but when he has a big game offensively it can change the game for Michigan. His he's not a great rebounder and his defense still has a ways to go, he still picks up too many fouls due to lack of foot speed and has the habit of reaching in. The key for Smotrycz going forward is continuing to develop the rest of his game and becoming a more complete player rather than just a shooter.
Overall, it seems (at least to this outside observer) like Michigan might be struggling to replace Harris and DeShawn Sims some but that John Beilein now has his kind of players at every spot on the floor, giving the team a chance to build toward future success. Stepping back from the current losing streak, what's your view of the program's trajectory going forward?
It's tough to generate much optimism in the midst of a six game losing streak. The first 15 games or so of the season were encouraging, including a couple narrow losses to top ten teams, but Big Ten play has been about as bad as most dreaded before the season. With the entire roster expected back next year and the addition of a pair of top 100 guards, next year's team has to be much better. The team should be significantly better and be an NCAA Tournament team that competes in the upper half of the league. If it's not, it might be time to start asking some serious questions about the future of the program.
KenPom has MSU as a 10-point favorite Thursday night, so it'll take something a little out of the ordinary for Michigan to pull off the upset. What path to victory do you see as most likely for the Wolverines (i.e., what should we Spartan types worry about most as we drift off to sleep Wednesday night)?
If Michigan is going to win this game there are four things that need to happen:
- Michigan State misses a lot of open shots.
- Michigan rebounds approximately 70% of Michigan State's missed shots.
- Michigan keeps Michigan State off of the free throw line.
- Michigan shoots around 40% on threes.
The way Michigan is playing right now, I have a tough time imagining that Michigan accomplishes two of the four items on the list. This team has put some surprising efforts together this season but a road game at the Breslin Center isn't the most likely place for surprises.