Thursday, January 19, 2012

A note on Tim Hardaway Jr.

Chris Ryba | The Michigan Daily
I've drawn much ire for my criticism of Tim Hardaway Jr. in the wake of the Michigan State game. Because I don't like being wrong, and more importantly, because I want to affirm that what I'm seeing and thinking are not totally crazy, I figured I'd jot down some thoughts about Michigan's most enigmatic scorer.

Hardaway came out of high school as a middling three-star recruit (Scout listed him as the #36 shooting guard in the country; he wasn't ranked on Rivals). After a successful freshman year, people were crowning him as one of the league's best scorers, which he might well be, but in a way that should make more people skeptical of his production. Hardaway is a high-volume shooter (he averaged 13.9 PPG on 10.8 shots/game last year; 15.4 PPG on 12.5 shots/game this season), which is odd given his predilection to disappear for large periods of time. Unfortunately, this equates to a player who is not particularly efficient on the offensive end.

Many people look to KenPom for college basketball stats, but my stat guru is ESPN's John Hollinger. About two years ago, Hollinger introduced his NBA Player Efficiency Rating (PER) to the college game. I'll let him explain:
For those of you unfamiliar with PER, it stands for player efficiency rating. This is the catch-all metric I developed to sum up what you see in the box score -- a method I developed to provide apples-to-apples comparisons of NBA players who are playing under different circumstances.

It doesn't see everything because not everything is counted -- for instance, the box score doesn't have good defensive stats besides blocks and steals. But it's adjusted for the pace of the game and calculated on a per-minute basis, so it's a great way to get a statistical snapshot of a player's efficiency and effectiveness.
PER is, in my opinion, the best metric for judging players. When the initial college rankings came out a week or so ago, I wanted to see where Hardaway landed. Given his production and widespread praise, I sort of assumed that he'd end up in the good-not-great region of players nationally. But a glance at the top 100 players nationally in PER returns no Wolverines. Fortunately, Hollinger also has a conference-by-conference breakdown of players. Hardaway? 36th... in the Big Ten.

Hardaway's PER is a middling 18.53 (per Hollinger, league average is 15.00). Both Evan Smotrycz (20.15, 25th) and Trey Burke (19.71, 27th) rank higher than Hardaway. For perspective, Jared Sullinger is currently leading the Big Ten in PER with 33.18. PER is a metric that can swing a few tenths of a point after a single game, but after tracking Hardaway since the rankings have been up, he's been consistently in the high teens, and has not surpassed Smotrycz or Burke.

Less objectively, Hardaway seems to be a player that gets praised for good timing and image. Hardaway has come up big late in games, and he may very well be one of those clutch scorers that just happens to put it together at the end, but that's not the kind of top scorer you can successfully build your team around. There's a reason Hardaway doesn't get to the line or the bucket: he can't, really. His first step is slow, his lateral quickness is lacking (just look at his defense, about which more later), and he doesn't have the strength to muscle up inside. He does, however, have incredibly long strides that make him an excellent transition scorer and afford good straight-line speed.

But Hardaway is not a bad player. Hardaway is a great player to have as a second or third option, which he ostensibly is given the success of Burke and Darius Morris last year. The problem is that Michigan's second option offensively is a defensive sieve. Hardaway's PER benefits from the lack of defensive metrics because, as most can agree, he's either a lackadaisical defender (not rotating to help, getting lost in coverage, taking possessions off) or outright subpar. I think it's a combination of the two: his lateral quickness hinders his ability to guard athletic shooting guards and small forwards, and he fails to make up for it with Zack Novak effort.

I do really like Hardaway. He seems like a good kid with the raw talent to be a special player, but I also think he gets too much praise for his actual output. You'll think I'm crazy or a prick for writing this, but you probably thought that already. At least now I know I'm not crazy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Arrival

Melanie Maxwell |
There are some moments that feel bigger than they actually are in the grand scheme of things: your first kiss, getting your first job, acing a particular test. Each has some cultural significance that tells you This Is Important despite the fact that these moments are likely to happen far more frequently in the future than they have in the past. The worst case scenario for most of these is a missed opportunity, but there are some instances that don't necessarily have to happen; when Target rejected my application as a 16 year old, it felt deflating, but chances were that I'd spend most of my life working in some capacity.

When Darius Morris' floater clanged off the rim against Duke to end the Wolverines' season last year, everyone was disappointed. Michigan had missed its opportunity to make a truly profound statement: not only had Beilein begun to turn around a moribund program, but the evolution was complete; Michigan can compete with anyone, on any stage, at any time. Instead it felt like another close loss, the likes of which the team has seemed to suffer on a regular basis over the last three years. Sports are zero sum events--there are no moral victories--so despite Michigan's fate last night hinging on a similar shot that could have just as easily gone the other way, the results are profoundly different.

It's a reach to say that Michigan has a better basketball program than Michigan State now. They don't. Tom Izzo's win total and the Final Four appearances and the recruiting rankings and the championship banners hanging in the Breslin Center are enough proof of that. But Michigan is a better team than Michigan State, which is something that can't be said that frequently in the history (certainly the more recent history) of Michigan basketball.

Most importantly, though, Michigan has finally arrived. When they were ranked #15 in the preseason poll heading into the 2009-2010 season, most fans were skeptical. The team still had noticeable blemishes and the wins that put them on the map the previous year felt more like feel-good stories than the actual emergence of a contender. But with the program's third straight win over their in-state rival--and a team with annual national title aspirations and potential, to boot--the Wolverines have finally fulfilled the promise that they've been inching toward since Beilein set foot in Ann Arbor.

  • Everyone knew that Michigan was going to lose that game in the second half. And then they didn't. A big thanks goes to Keith Appling who continues to play faster than his mind can process. Credit obviously goes to Michigan's defense as well, about which more in a moment, but Appling, as he did last year, plays too quickly.
  • Jordan Morgan, Zack Novak, and Stu Douglass are the reason Michigan won this game. Despite their middling stat lines, these guys all stepped up throughout the game defensively. Down the stretch, I would've liked to see Douglass covering Appling more frequently, but this is a minor complaint. Morgan denied the post, Novak did his grit thing, and Douglass displayed his usual defensive prowess.

    Beilein also deserves credit for the defensive performance. He just pushes the right buttons at the right time, mixing in 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone defenses with the team's typical man coverage. He uses the zone sets sparing, but they almost always seem to work when he deploys them.
  • Trey Burke: good.
  • I think the Hardaway hype train has finally run out of steam. The two charges that he took on defense were momentum shifting plays, but otherwise, Hardaway continued his unimpressive season. And yet it's hard to argue with his season averages (15.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.5 APG). Hardaway is a utility superstar (think Joe Johnson): not amazing at anything but pretty good at just about everything with an emphasis on scoring. His defense is still a huge problem and he appears to be a malcontent. Hardaway has to be one of the most humdrum stars in the country.
  • It still boggles my mind that a team full of three-point specialists can't hit three pointers. I know that everyone's enduring vision of Novak is of him scrapping for rebounds and bleeding from his forehead, but watching him clanging wide open threes off the rim will be my lasting memory of him, fair or not.
  • This is a great NCAA Tournament resume piece. One or two more of these (and taking care of business against the Big Ten's lower-ranked teams) and Michigan could be looking at a 5 or 6 seed in the tournament.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Notes from Michigan vs. Indiana

Now that I've finally had a chance to watch a few Michigan hoops games (including actually attending the Bradley game, my first in-person Michigan hoops game since a 2004 throttling at the hands of Michigan State), I feel like I finally have something to say about the team...
  • Yesterday's game was not close. I know the scoreboard says Michigan only lost by 2 points, but that game was totally dominated by the Hoosiers. Michigan allowed Indiana to shoot 55% from the field, including 63% from outside (most of which were completely uncontested). The teams had equal rebounds, Indiana had two more assists and five more blocks, and Michigan only held onto the ball slightly better than the Hoosiers (12 and 15 turnovers respectively). Three more made three pointers by the Wolverines and seven missed free throws by Indiana is the only thing that kept this game close.
  • The main reason for the loss: athleticism. Michigan got kind of exposed last night. It will surprise no one that Stu Douglass and Zack Novak are less athletic than some of their counter parts (spot up three-point shooters tend to be), but just how much less athletic was put in stark contrast last night. Sure, not every team has someone as electric as Victor Oladipo, but Michigan simply could not keep up with that team last night. They were faster and stronger at basically every position, which resulted in contested shots for the Wolverines, blow bys on the defensive end, and an inability to get open, both on and off the ball (I've never seen back cuts defended so well without giving up anything on the frontside; Indiana is just that much faster).
  • This leads me to my next point of contention which I will be widely derided for: Tim Hardaway Jr. is not very fast. He can jump pretty high and has decent straight-line speed, but his first step is devastatingly slow. There's a reason you can barely give him the ball in isolation situations on the offensive end: he can't beat his man off the dribble. Similarly, this lack of quickness is one of the primary reasons that he's such an abhorrent defender. If you didn't believe it before, you should after last night. And on nights when he's going 0/7 from outside, he's as much a detriment to the team as a benefit (19 points on 19 shots from your star player is not a recipe for success).
  • Jordan Morgan did a really good job defending Cody Zeller last night, despite his still positive stat line. Morgan denied passes into the post by fronting Zeller all game and was quick enough to get back into position so as not to allow lob passes or anything inside.
  • Evan Smotrycz. Damn, kid can shoot. Can't dribble. Can't pass. Loves fouling. But boy can he shoot.
  • Enough has been said about Trey Burke to date, and I'm not sure I have much more to offer. He does have one of the softest shots I've ever seen. I'm not really sure why, or whether or not it's less effective because of it, but his shots flutter in a way that I don't think I've ever seen before. Especially from outside, he seems to heave the ball more than shoot it. I expect his outside shooting to improve dramatically whenever Michigan's coaches really have a chance to mold his form (probably not until the offseason).
As MGoBlog mentioned yesterday, this loss doesn't really hurt Michigan's NCAA Tourny resume, but they're going to need a few of these games against ranked opponents to go the other way. "Good losses" only get you so far. But they're set up well to win a few this season. Besides, Indiana is going to finish the Big Ten either 1st or 2nd (behind OSU), so not all of Michigan's ranked opponents will be Duke or this Indiana team.

Last word on bubble screens... for this season

I drew much ire yesterday for criticizing Al Borges' neglect of bubble screens. It's been a bugaboo all season and it was especially bad against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Specifically, this comment caught my eye:
This is what happens when fans and internet blogger heroes think they know more than coaches. We're not running a spread-option offense anymore. The bubble screen and constraint plays went out the door with Rich Rodriguez. If that pisses you off, then take it up with David Brandon for hiring a coach who doesn't wish to run the spread. Expecting a coach to run an offense that isn't his is unfair, and, quite frankly, dumb.
Frankly, I'm not asking Al Borges to run an offense he doesn't know or doesn't understand. I'm asking him to be smart enough to take advantage of the defense when it aligns like this:

This is egregious. When you don't throw the bubble screen here, things like the Sugar Bowl happen: a game that saw Borges absolutely punked by the Hokie defensive staff as they played to his tendencies and forced Michigan to run plays into the strength of the defense.

I don't care about constraint plays or zone reads or any of the other plays and terminology that came with the Rodriguez era. I do care about winning football games, though, and ignoring the bubble screen when a defense aligns like this makes it significantly harder to win football games. This is equivalent to coming out in a three-tight end formation under center on 1st and 10 in the first quarter, when the defense has 11 defensive backs on the field, and running play action. Attack what the defense is giving here. In the picture above, they're giving Michigan anywhere from 8 to 46 free yards.

If Borges never aligns the offense like this next year, that's fine. But if you align the offense like this, you have to take advantage of its benefits. Those include stretching the defense horizontally by using screen passes. This isn't even a questionable screen pass call (where it's 3 vs. 3, for instance, and you're asking a receiver to make a play in space); there are barely two defenders covering three of Michigan's receivers.

Many times this game, Michigan ran the ball into 10 box defenders. This is not effective. It will never be effective. Like Michigan's losses against Iowa and Michigan State this year, the defense had a gameplan: load up the box and defend the run aggressively, forcing Denard to beat them through the air. Michigan was lucky to win this game because offensively, they were dominated. If Borges implements screen passes--and not even many of them, throwing one or two a game will force teams to respect the threat--this forces defenders outside of the box, opening lanes for Denard and Co. in the running game.

I realize that at this point I'm banging my head against a wall. No one even wants to read about this anymore, but it's something that, when it pops up during such an abysmal offensive performance, I can't simply ignore. Borges does not believe in the bubble screen. That's unfortunate. It's also stupid.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

BrendOwl Gibbons

Sugar Bowl bullets

I'm sure there's some narrative to be written about last night. Maybe there's something about Junior Hemingway's emotional post-game speech, but it hasn't come to me yet. Last night was terribawesome. This is the emotion I can muster. For now, though, bullet:
  • That Brendan Gibbons winning field goal almost makes up for the last three years of awful special teams play. The best part was that you kind of felt like he was going to make it. That's an awesome feeling.

    Howeva, it seems like the refs missed false start calls on Gibbons on both the yackety sax "fake" field goal and the game winner. He was called for that stutter step earlier in the year, but the refs let it go in this game. I do not know why. Probably because our helmets have wings.
  • Al Borges had a truly awful game last night. He was sort of in a Mattison Ohio mood: He came into the game with a gameplan, it wasn't working, and he just wasn't adjusting. Michigan was running on nearly every first down this game and the Hokies were loading the box with sometimes 10 defenders. This is the biggest reason for the offense being completely awful.

    The other reason, and I know I said I wasn't going to complain about this anymore, but deal with it, Borges is truly an idiot for not throwing bubble screens. For most of the game, Virginia Tech wasn't even covering the Michigan wide receivers because they knew Michigan a) wouldn't throw the bubble and b) were planning on running directly into their strength. Borges needs to put this one behind him.
  • Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, and perhaps more importantly, the Virginia Tech offensive line, were as advertised. The interior of that offensive line is dysfunctional. Martin and Van Bergen were three yards into the backfield on basically every running play. The only reason they can pass block is that they keep retreating into Logan Thomas, at least long enough for him to zip a pass to one of his many wide receivers. I have no idea how a team with an offensive line that bad can win 11 games.
  • Still not sold on David Wilson, and his 24-carry, 84-yard day is about what was expected. Mitigating factors apply (terrible offensive line), sure, but outside of the one carry that Wilson turned from a two-yard loss to an eight-yard gain, he didn't really get many yards that weren't made for him by outflanking the defense with blockers. Wilson looks like a backup Wisconsin running back: runs behind his pads and plays to power, but can't will a team to victory that's not getting blocking advantages on the outside.
  • Logan Thomas, however, remains a scary dude. He's huge and semi-mobile and makes great throws. His two late-game first down scrambles were both Mike Martin's fault for not maintaining gap integrity, but Thomas was smart enough to see the holes and pick up big yardage. His YPA numbers are pretty uninspiring because the team ran a lot of hot read checkdowns on Michigan blitzes, but Thomas played an incredible game. Except for...
  • Next up: Danny Coale. Good receiver. That wasn't a catch in overtime. There is no debate about this.
  • Blake Countess had trouble defending double moves all year. Virginia Tech took note and attacked him all game. Countess fluctuated between awful freshmen mistakes and being in perfect position. He'll be good.
These are all the thoughts I can muster right now. There will be more coverage throughout the week, including the typical game breakdown with play analysis etc. It might be a little later than usual, though, because I didn't even think to look for a torrent of the game last night. Hopefully someone has one up tonight. Knowing the Michigan blogosphere, I'm sure it's already up.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 Sugar Bowl Preview

All 2012 Sugar Bowl coverage can be found on the Bowl Game page.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
#13 Michigan (10-2) vs. #11 Virginia Tech (11-2)
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
Kickoff 8:30 pm EST

Previous Game
#5 Virginia Tech 10 - #20 Clemson 38. The last time the Hokies took the field, things did not go as planned, as the team was blown out in the ACC title game against Clemson. Much hyped running back David Wilson was completely shut down, rushing for just 32 yards on 11 carries. And with the Hokies down by so much, QB Logan Thomas threw the ball 44 times and was not great: 22/44, 274 yards (6.2 YPA), 1 TD, 2 INTs.

Meanwhile, Clemson did just about anything they wanted. As a team, they rushed for 4.8 YPC on 45 carries, which is the best performance of any team against the Hokies this season. QB Tajh Boyd went 20/29 for 240 yards and 3 TDs. The vaunted Hokie defense was wholly shredded: 457 total yards, 8.0 YPA, 4.8 YPC, 0 turnovers forced.

Ohio 34 - #15 Michigan 40. Game column. I mean, you know what happened.

Offense vs. Virginia Tech
If the Hokies are known for anything, it's their defense. Virginia Tech boasts the #17 rushing defense, #13 pass efficiency defense, and #8 scoring defense, while coming in at 30th in turnover margin. They run an aggressive, blitzing defense that gets most of its production from its secondary and pair of sophomore defensive ends. As mentioned around here earlier, four of the Hokies top five tacklers are in the secondary. Those four secondary members account for 3.5 sacks, 8 INTs, and 21 tackles for loss. The Hokie secondary plays downhill, blitzes frequently and is often involved in the run game.

While that sounds intimidating, the Hokie linebackers are subpar at best. They overpursue to the ball, have trouble filling running lanes, and bite on play action frequently. That the Hokies have such a good run defense is due to the fact that they sell out against it with their secondary. On the defensive line, meanwhile, defensive ends JR Collins and James Gayle have some crazy numbers, combining for 20 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The defensive tackles are unimpressive. Frankly, I'm not sure how this defense boasts such good numbers across the board.

Offensively, Michigan should make hay against the interior of the Hokie defense. Al Borges' playbook has the kind of counters that should eat the Virginia Tech linebackers alive, and the defensive line is either ineffective defensive tackles or pin-your-ears-back defensive ends. When you take chances and blitz a lot, you create turnovers and big negative plays, but Michigan has been good in preparation for defenses this year and has all of the pieces to victimize the Hokie defense.

With Denard coming off his best game of the year against Ohio (14/17 for 167 yards, 3 TDs, 26 carries for 170 yards, 2 TDs) and seemingly healthy, Michigan matches up well against this defense. Though Mark Huyge's matchup against the Hokie defensive ends looms large, the rest of the line should be able to contain the blitz-heavy front of Virginia Tech. In the secondary, the Hokies will show both man and zone coverage, and while MGoBlog has been kind of terrified of the Virginia Tech secondary, I'm more confident in Michigan's ability to find holes in the intermediate areas of the field where the linebackers were supposed to be*.

On the ground, Fitz Toussaint should have a big game. Given the struggles of the Virginia Tech linebackers and Toussaint's noted ability to cut back and burst upfield, if the offensive line can create any holes (and it seems like they should be able to), Toussaint should gash the Hokie defense frequently.

*Something I've been thinking about this year: Rich Rodriguez's QB Oh Noes were usually used to attack opposing safeties and get big plays. Borges' have been used to attack linebackers for 10-15 yard gains. I think this will be a huge factor in the game.

Defense vs. Virginia Tech
Though the Virginia Tech defense boasts some impressive numbers, the offense is not quite as intimidating, at least on paper: 29th in rushing offense, 66th in passing offense, and 52nd in scoring offense. The dangermen are running back David Wilson and QB Logan Thomas, but really, most of the work falls on Wilson's shoulders.

The Hokies run the ball about 60% of the time with Wilson averaging 6.1 YPC. Though it may qualify me as a crazy person, I don't think too much of Wilson. He has a tendency to bounce the ball outside even when he shouldn't, and despite having a devastating spin move, seems like a pretty regular running back. There are mitigating factors: the interior of the Hokie offensive line might be the worst that Michigan faces all year. The Hokies are more or less unable to run up the middle despite being fond of using pulling linemen and running power. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen are set up for big games, and if Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, and Jordan Kovacs are disciplined and maintain the edge on rushing plays, I expect Wilson to have another poor game, closer to his performance against Clemson in the ACC title game than against some of the team's weaker opponents.

Oddly, it's Thomas who scares me more than anything else on Virginia Tech. Thomas is a slightly mobile rocket cannon (think Ben Roethlisberger, except not a despicable human being). With a clean pocket, Thomas can hit receivers in stride and rifle passes into any hole in the defense. Maybe it's just residual fear from 2010 or turning Braxton Miller into a capable thrower, but watching film on Thomas makes me fearful of this game.

Getting to Thomas is key. He has a tendency to throw some bad interceptions, but is far too accurate with a clean pocket for Michigan's secondary to adequately cover all game. Oddly, despite the Virginia Tech interior line being horrible in run blocking, they seem to handle pass blocking pretty well as long as the defense is only bringing four linemen. Greg Mattison blitzes and Martin's ability to shuck interior linemen on pass plays are what is going to decide this game for Michigan's defense.

They Hokies also have a bit of option running in their game. They have shown both the inverted veer as well as a triple option look in the games I've watched this season. Earlier in the year, Mattison mentioned that the contain defenders are always forcing the QB to hand the ball off on option plays, but I would expect them to break tendency against Virginia Tech. Thomas is a huge, rumbling, 6'6" pillar that gets yards because he's bigger than you are. Risking David Wilson in the open field is a worse option than letting Thomas try and rumble for more than five yards.

Aside from Thomas' arm and the potential for Wilson to get hyphy on the edge of Michigan's defense, there's really not much about this matchup that worries me. I think Michigan is supremely suited to attack a Virginia Tech defense that is overly aggressive and weak in the front seven. On the other side of the ball, Martin and Van Bergen should show some inspired play against an interior line that gets thrown around by basically everyone. If Michigan can't get any pressure on Thomas, this game could quickly turn ugly, but Mattison and the defensive line will make sure that doesn't happen. Good Denard vs. Evil Denard given, but Michigan's offense gets it clicking early and often.

Michigan 34 - Virginia Tech 24