Rewind - Michigan

Mar 6, 2021

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What, you didn't think we could just move on to Ohio State without a little more Michigan game content did you? In this beyond fun edition of Rewind we take a look at how the Illinois defense dismantled the Wolverines and also how one simple offensive set picked apart the Michigan defense as well.

So let the Wolverines go on calculating win percentage decimal points and celebrating an asterisk-ship while you enjoy this breakdown of how the game between the two teams actually played out on the court.

The defensive tone for this one was set in the first 20 minutes - on December 11, 2019. Wait - what? Yes, 15 months ago Michigan came into the State Farm Center ranked 5th in the AP poll and headed back to Ann Arbor wearing a 71-62 loss.

A defensive strategy was born that night which has baffled Michigan for going on three games now. Over those three games, Illinois has held the Wolverines to a paltry 39% shooting clip - including just 21% (9/42) from the three point line. We have owned the defensive glass to the tune of an 80% defensive rebounding percentage over the three games, and on Tuesday, we held Michigan to a microscopic 0.77 PPP.

So the obvious question - how?

At its core the Michigan offense is actually quite similar to the Illinois offense. It revolves around ball screens for their lead guard (Mike Smith) - usually from their gigantic center (Hunter Dickinson). These two present mismatches for most opposing defenses and as such their two man ball screen game often requires defensive help. When the help comes, room is created for their two wings (Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers) to cut to the basket and/or find open shots on the three point line.

The ongoing problem for Michigan is that our current roster is uniquely equipped to play their two man ball screen action straight up. We have the speed and size at guard needed to clamp down on the ball handler and the luxury of our own gigantic center to defend the low post without needing help. Our strategy on defense has been to winnow the Michigan offense down to that two man ball screen game and watch their secondary action grind to a halt.

Let's start this film session by dialing up the way back machine to look at a clip from that first Michigan game and see our defensive seeds being planted (with Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske playing the roles of Smith and Dickinson). In this clip - you see our fundamental strategy at work. We "ice" the ball screen with the primary defender (Trent Frazier) and "drop" the secondary defender (Kofi Cockburn) into the lane.

"Icing" a screen means pushing the ballhandler towards the sideline or baseline which in essence makes that boundary an "extra" defender. Drop coverage - as we've covered here before - has the secondary defender drop down into the lane to cut off driving lanes and protect the rim. Drop coverage is the full opposite of trapping or hedging the screen (which is how we would typically defend ball screens back when Underwood was using his pressure defense).

Watch again and see how Trent pivots his hips toward the sideline as the screen arrives to "ice" Simpson while Kofi drops down into the lane. The open shot is there for Teske - but cue the Orange Krush "AIRBALL" chant.

Now let's jump to Tuesday in Ann Arbor, and we see almost a carbon copy of the first clip. DMW ices Brooks toward the sideline, Kofi drops to cut off any thought of a drive to the rim, and the only thing available is a long jumper from Dickinson...

Now back to the SFC again. Here we see Ayo ice Simpson toward the left sideline with Giorgi in drop coverage, then fight through two stagger screens and ice Simpson again - this time toward the right sideline with Kofi in drop coverage. No help from the perimeter is needed when Simpson eventually drives because Kofi is already in position as the help defense, and he easily disposes of the Simpson lay-up attempt.

And now back to Tuesday night where we again see the same strategy at work. This possession starts with Trent doing Trent things. He makes life miserable for Eli Brooks before he can even get the ball then fights through the ball screen and force Brooks toward the far sideline. Kofi remains in drop coverage lying in wait at the rim. Also note how Curbelo and Grandison both stay connected to their assignments on the perimeter.

Now we're starting to get an idea of why Brad Underwood is 3-0 against Juwan Howard over two seasons. In this clip we once more see that familiar defensive look - but in this one pay attention to how our wing defenders (Adam Miller and Jacob Grandison) on the ball side stay home even after Smith is able to get by Frazier on this drive. Giorgi staying home in the drop coverage negates the need for help to come from the perimeter.

Rinse and repeat. Lots of good stuff in this next clip. It starts with DMW tagging a back cut from Wagner while Trent continues to ruin Mike Smith by icing him into oblivion. Giorgi - who played a stellar defensive game - stays in drop coverage to deny Wagner at the rim.

When the ball screeners aren't really shooting threats, drop coverage keeps the rim closed for business.

Now on the opposite end of the spectrum - here is a clip of Michigan showing us how NOT to run drop coverage. Austin Davis drops into the lane as Kofi sets a ball screen for Trent, but Brooks goes under the screen and is on skates as Trent hits him with a step back. Davis is far too deep to make any difference whatsoever…

You simply can't go under a ball screen for a shooter when your help is in drop coverage.

Of course, sometimes defensive strategy goes out the window (like immediately after a bad turnover), and you just need your best on-the-ball defender to shut down a future NBA first round draft pick - and grab the defensive rebound for good measure….

That's 6'2" against 6'9" folks.

And then finally, this defensive possession has everything. Grandison ices the ball screen for Wagner and Giorgi is right there in drop coverage to deny dribble penetration. After Michigan resets, we do it all over again - this time with Trent and Giorgi shutting down the ball screen action for Smith. The possession ends with five seconds of lock down on-ball defense by Adam Miller on Brooks.

There were still 14 minutes left to play in this game, but by this point we had fully consumed Michigans' soul.

So while the main plot line of this game involved the Illinois defense, the offense showed up a bit as well - finishing the night at a more than respectable 1.10 PPP. That said - let's get this little bit of nonsense out of the way right now. WE ARE NOT A BETTER TEAM WITHOUT AYO DOSUNMU. I was happy that I didn't see much of that sentiment out there after the game, but it wasn't completely nonexistent. I think the best way to define this past week is that this team will be better for Ayo missing this time, but not because of Ayo missing this time.

What Ayo's absence did allow was an opportunity to expand the offensive playbook and add some new wrinkles - additions which may yet again prove useful down the road.

Well, actually, what we did was add back in a few old wrinkles. Brad Underwood's shift away from the spread offense has been well documented, but one spread set made its triumphant return against Michigan on Tuesday.

The "Horns" set starts with a single ballhandler at the top of the floor, two bigs at each high post, and two shooters on the wings.

We scored every which way out of this alignment - starting with this most basic action…

Here Kofi gives Trent a simple rub screen and rolls to the rim. With the floor SPREAD (see what I did there?) Grandison has an easy angle for the post feed and Kofi has plenty of room to operate against Davis - who offers nowhere near the resistance of Dickinson. The simplicity of this action is key as you will see how we continue to add counters in response to Michigan's defensive adjustments.

We open the second half with the same "Horns" look...

This time Dickinson fronts Kofi in the post, but again, because the floor is spread, Grandison can throw the ball over the top without fear of help defense getting in the way. Dunk City.

Now it's getting fun. Same set…AGAIN…

You can see that Dickinson is absolutely intent on not letting Kofi establish that low position again so he comes right up underneath him to prevent the roll. The problem is that he's now left the rim unprotected and Trent has an easy path for a layup.

By now we're just toying with them. For the third consecutive possession - say it with me now...SAME EXACT SET…

This time, Davis stays underneath to protect the basket and Smith jumps over to help against Trent's dribble penetration. Except - OOPS - in doing so Smith leaves Grandison wide open at the top of the key. Splash.

Four possessions. Four different "Horns" looks. Four buckets. Basketball can be such a simple game sometimes. I'll be acutely tuned into future stretches of game time when Ayo is on the bench to see if this offensive look shows up again.

So I hope this little appetizer whetted your appetite for this afternoon's main course against the Buckeyes. Now let's go lock up that 1 seed.


BennyJ on March 5, 2021 @ 09:50 PM

We certainly are not a better team with Ayo off the floor, but I think we defer to him a bit too often. With our other players getting established in his absence, I hope it opens up more for Ayo or alternatively gives other guys more chances.

ClassOfDeeDeronJames on March 6, 2021 @ 03:59 AM

Fantastic work as usual. I've apparently been watching basketball for many years without absorbing any tactical knowledge, so these posts are always so helpful. Great to see coaching be a strength for this team. Couldn't say that much for Groce or frankly most of the football coaches the past decade.

Giovantischixstripz on March 6, 2021 @ 08:05 AM

Will be interested to see how our coverages adjust to OSU. Last time against them Liddell killed our drop coverages with pick n pop 3s and midrangers. It made sense at the time, as up to that point in his career he had been 18% from 3, but starting with his game against us he has had a Damonte Williamsesque turn, shooting 45% from 3. Maybe counter some when they have Young and Liddell on the court together by going big with Giorgi at the 4, and Kofi can check Young who is less of a pick n pop threat.

Walkon on March 6, 2021 @ 08:24 AM

Absolutely the key thing I’m watching today - how we defend their ball screens. Can’t drop nearly as deep as we did against Michigan - which makes things more challenging. OTOH - Kofi should eat against their frontcourt.

Giovantischixstripz on March 6, 2021 @ 06:44 PM

Well Liddell hurt us, and Kofi didn't have a huge game...But adjusting by putting Kofi on Young and Damonte on Liddell was critical for winning the game. Think Holtman should have stayed small when Suieng fouled out to force a mismatch with Kofi or force him out of the game.

Nall23 on March 6, 2021 @ 08:14 AM

Michigan would do well to take the advice of Principal Dick Vernon from the Breakfast Club. "Don't mess with the bull, young men, you'll get THE HORNS".

DB50 on March 6, 2021 @ 08:42 AM

Great analysis of set plays Walkon, it helps immensely in understanding the Illini offense.

AGig21 on March 6, 2021 @ 09:17 AM

goodnight Irene, great article. I gotta ask, what are of us illini fans doing up so early checking and reading articles when the game doesn't tip until 3?? how much fun is this? And I think we are maybe halfway thru the ride for this season..

lucasmeducas on March 6, 2021 @ 09:19 AM

That breakdown got me "horn"y lol. Thank you so much for breaking down exactly why we were so successful on both defense and offense. Awesome, awesome read!

IBFan on March 6, 2021 @ 11:06 AM

Did Walkon just become one of my favorite analysts?


ericlitz on March 6, 2021 @ 11:18 AM

Great breakdown Tyler. I think the set where Trent crossed Chaundee Brown into oblivion was also a horns set too. Would love to see them run that play with Ayo back as the ball handler, in grandison’s position or in the corner.

San Joaquin on March 6, 2021 @ 12:49 PM

stellar stuff, again.

Sean on March 7, 2021 @ 08:30 AM

These breakdowns are enlightening. Keep it up.

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