In-state rivalry game! Both teams ranked! Which hasn't happened very often! Couldn't pass up doing the traditional Q and A with Dylan! Below, I'm in bold. My answers to his questions will be up at UMHoops later today.
1. Coming into the season the big question mark for Michigan was how ably freshman Trey Burke would be able to replace Darius Morris as the starting point guard. By all accounts, the transition has gone very well, with Burke posting a 108.4 offensive rating to go with a very healthy usage rate of 26.1. Tell us about Burke's strengths (and, we hope, a deficiency or two that remains in his game).
Trey Burke has played as well as anyone could have imagined before the season. Burke has been almost as productive as Morris was as a sophomore last season but his approach to the point guard position is completely different. Morris was a bigger guard that thrived finishing creatively around the basket and using his size to pass the ball on the screen-and-roll. Burke is a smaller and much quicker guard that can shoot the three (34%) but also use his quickness to get in the lane. His favorite shot is probably the pull-up jumper from the elbow but his offensive game might be most effective when he’s pushing the ball in transition.
Where Burke struggles is passing the ball out of the pick-and-roll. The Wolverines run screen-and-roll action as a significant portion of their offense and recent opponents have begun to defend the look with a hard hedge, forcing Burke to beat them with the pass to the roll man. His size makes this a bit difficult and the hard hedge has not only limited Burke, it has limited Jordan Morgan, who gets most of his offensive production off the roll. I would be shocked if Tom Izzo doesn’t attempt to defend Burke like this and it will be a storyline to see how Burke, and Beilein adjust. [Ed. - More on this from MGoBlog.]
Much more after the jump!
2. The rest of the Wolverine lineup should be pretty familiar to MSU fans, as Burke is the only freshman getting significant minutes. Which players' games have progressed or regressed the most since we last saw them?
Zack Novak is one guy that has really diversified his game. Last year 70% of his field goal attempts were threes, this year that ratio is down to 54%. He's not only taking more twos, he's making them. His two point shooting percentage has jumped from 38% (27-of-71) last season to 63% (36-of-57) this season.
Jordan Morgan’s numbers are down across the board but he’s still a very similar player. As I mentioned earlier, Burke isn’t nearly as adept at finding Morgan rolling to the basket and that’s where a majority of his offensive production is generated. He's still an able finisher around the hoop, 65% on twos, but it’s a constant struggle for Michigan to find him touches where he can be effective.
3. Despite a solid 14-4 record, Michigan hasn't looked all that dominant at times. In particular, the defense seems to have regressed some, falling from #34 to #69 by KenPom's count. Where have the issues been on defense? Related: How much has John Beilein deployed the 1-3-1 this season?
I still can’t quite figure out how good this team really is. Michigan has beaten some good teams – Memphis, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern - but hasn’t really won a game that it shouldn’t have won on paper, or won on the road. Before Saturday’s loss at Iowa, the Wolverines didn’t have any bad losses either. The results to date have been a bit like treading water and waiting to see what direction the season is going to go.
Some of the KenPom numbers are undoubtedly affected by poor performances against subpar competition but Michigan has also been torched by a few teams this year. Michigan has surrendered 1.10 points per possession or more in four games this season, all losses. The defense has been very good at times but consistency has probably been the biggest issue. When the Wolverine defense struggles, 3-point shooting is generally the culprit.
The 1-3-1 is little more than a change of pace option for Michigan at this point. You’ll rarely see it for more than four or five possessions in any given game and it’s used more as a comeback tool than anything else.
4. The matchup at the 4 spot has been a key in this rivalry of late (Delvon Roe for our guys 3 years ago in Ann Arbor, Zack Novak for yours last year in East Lansing). How do you see things potentially playing out there this year? (Odd fact: Draymond Green has only averaged 6.0 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in 5 career games vs. Michigan.)
A month ago, I would have raved about Evan Smotrycz’s improvement. Smotrycz averaged 15.2 points and 9.2 rebounds with an 83 percent effective field goal percentage (65% on threes) over six games in December. He appeared to be on the verge of becoming the outside-inside four man that Michigan fans imagined when he committed to John Beilein. However, through five games in January he’s averaging 3.6 points and 4.8 rebounds with a 26 percent effective field goal percentage (18% on threes).
Michigan needs Smotrycz to find his way out of this slump because he’s a game changer offensively (he had 14 points on six shots at Crisler last year against Michigan State). At 6-foot-9 he spreads the floor effectively and opens things up for the other four players on the floor. If Smotrycz struggles, Zack Novak is your four. Michigan State fans obviously remember Novak’s six threes in East Lansing last year and, as you mention, he’s done a surprisingly good job of defending Draymond Green. However, Novak at the four is still a significant size mismatch and something that Michigan State could look to exploit.
5. With the Mitch McGary commitment, Beilein is building some really positive momentum for the program. As a close observer of the program, where do your expectation levels stand--both for this season and the future?
The positive momentum around the program is as strong as it’s been in well over a decade. Recruiting momentum is picking up steam and success on the court continues to trend in an upward direction. I mentioned earlier that it’s tough to know where this year’s team will end up. They are capable of losing at Iowa but I think they are capable of beating most teams in the country when they play their A-game. This team probably doesn’t have the guns to compete for the Big Ten Championship until the final weekend but I think the most concrete sign of progress would be making the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In the future, comparing the talent level of Michigan’s roster to what little knowledge I have of other Big Ten rosters, I think Beilein is beginning to build a foundation that can compete for Big Ten titles.
6. Finally, what's the #1 positive indicator you'll be looking for from Michigan's standpoint during the game Tuesday night? And what's the biggest red flag you'll be keeping an eye out for?
Looking back at last year’s games, a couple of things stand out. Michigan won in East Lansing thanks to 3-point shooting and defensive rebounding. Michigan State dominated the offensive glass in the second game but struggled to make any shots inside (32% on twos) while Michigan had a huge advantage at the free throw line. I’m not sure about this Michigan team at this point but Michigan State is obviously a better team than a year ago whether it’s rebounding, defense, or shooting.
Whenever you play Michigan State, defensive rebounding is important. The Spartans are as devastating and aggressive as an offensive rebounding team as Michigan will play this year but the Wolverines have been good on the glass in spurts. The second game last year proves that it is possible for Michigan to beat Michigan State while getting beat on the glass, but the recipe is a lot easier if the Wolverines can limit second opportunities.
Michigan has been getting killed from the 3-point line in Big Ten games. The Wolverines have not only shot the ball poorly, 29.7%, they’ve defended the 3-point shot poorly, 41.1% allowed. For an offense that is so predicated on the 3-point shot, Michigan needs to regain its shooting touch to win this game.
The final area I’ll be focused is transition offense. Michigan is very selective when it runs but has come up with some timely baskets in transition this season, especially at home. On the other hand, transition defense has been an issue. Indiana and Iowa both hurt Michigan in transition and Keith Appling leading the fast break scares me as a Michigan fan.