MBB: These Are Our Concerns, Ranked
Preseason top-five Michigan is off to a rough 6-4 start. What looks fixable and what looks worrisome?
It’s time to talk about it.
Michigan football gloriously extending their season into December has overshadowed a brutal start for the men’s basketball team, which entered the year as a popular Final Four pick and now sits at 6-4 overall (1-1 Big Ten) with only one KenPom top-50 win (#46 San Diego State) in four tries.
The record is no fluke. The Wolverines have glaring flaws, some of which were easier to anticipate than others, that are difficult to overcome when they’re all present at once. They’re missing jumpers and free throws, they’re turning it over too much, their perimeter defense is bad, key players keep getting into foul trouble, the freshmen are playing like freshmen, and so on.
What should worry us the most about Michigan’s poor start? What can they turn around? I’ve done by best to identify the team’s primary issues and rank them by how damaging/correctable they should be the rest of the season, particularly when it matters down the stretch.
DISHONORABLE MENTION, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
The point guards foul too much. Absolutely a concern! It’s bad to need to swap out your lead ballhandler because of silly fouls. DeVante’ Jones has committed more than his fair share of those; Frankie Collins actually fouls more than Jones on a per-40-minute basis. We could only fit so many point guard-related concerns into the list, however, and it doesn’t matter who’s on the court if nobody’s playing very well.
The big men aren’t blocking shots. Despite adding Moussa Diabate, Michigan has dropped from 93rd in block rate (10.1%, per KenPom) to 206th (7.9%). Block rate doesn’t tend to improve in Big Ten play. This feels more like a symptom of other defensive problems than a cause of them, however.
Diabate isn’t quite ready for prime time. We anticipated this to a large extent. We also anticipated he’d be in a far better environment on both ends of the floor. Many parts of his offensive game have been a pleasant surprise and he’s an impactful, albeit often unsound, defensive player. The Arizona game was a rough learning experience but he was always gonna have a few of those this season. The main problems aren’t about him (or, while we’re in the frontcourt, anything related to Hunter Dickinson).
[Player X] should get more minutes. Every time I have this thought, whether it’s about Terrance Williams or Kobe Bufkin or Zeb Jackson, that player makes errors in their next shift that remind me of an important, simple fact: Juwan Howard has seen these guys play a whole lot more than any of us. Quibbles with certain lineups? Fair. Asking to overhaul the rotation? Probably not happening for a reason.
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5. Caleb Houstan Hasn’t Looked Like a Five-Star
Houstan’s three-pointer has come back around after a three-game, 1-for-14 lull that included the Seton Hall and Arizona losses. He’s 18/37 from beyond the arc in the other seven games. The kid, as advertised, can shoot the rock.
Not much else has gone well. He’s shot a Brad Davison-esque 4/16 on two-pointers in M’s four losses. Outside of spot-up shooting, he’s struggled in halfcourt settings, committing 23 turnovers against 16 assists — it’s harder to swallow those turnovers when he’s not creating much offense.
Meanwhile, he’s been a mess on defense. According to Synergy, he’s faced seven more spot-up possessions than anyone else on the team — a sign he’s leaving his man open on the perimeter — and allowing an ugly 1.18 points per possession on those plays. He has trouble sticking with quicker players, which tends to be his matchup given M’s roster construction, and he compounds that issue with poor technique.
Houstan gets caught ball-watching when he’s off the ball. He also freelances. On this play, he combines the two, deciding to half-heartedly triple-team the post before realizing he’s leaving two shooters wide open on the weak side:
Eli Brooks communicates to the big men, puts UNC in a tough position while providing help, and gets a three-pointer in his face for his troubles because Houstan gets distracted by the ball.
The good news for Houstan is the mental errors are more easily correctable than size/athletic limitations. He’s not the quickest laterally; his length should still make him a decent college defender if he can play with sound technique. His offense should also improve as he gets accustomed to a higher level of play.
The bad news for Michigan is they have to ride out Houstan’s growing pains. Williams may be able to provide more backup minutes at the three now that Diabate is back from his illness but he’s the only game-ready small forward on the bench.
4. Threes and Free Throws Aren’t Falling — or Going Up
The Wolverines are shooting a middling 33.7% on three-pointers and that number is boosted by two hot nights against San Diego State and Nebraska. In five games against top-100 competition, Michigan is hitting only 27.7% of their threes, per Bart Torvik. Meanwhile, they’re 269th in the country with a 66.8% mark at the free throw line.
Michigan has also struggled to get good looks. Less than 35% of their shots are coming from beyond the arc and that number dips below 30 against top-100 teams. They’ve reached the line frequently against only one good team, Arizona. The only regular who gets there at a significantly above-average rate is Diabate, who’s 13/26 on FTs.
This was one of the primary concerns heading into the season and it’s been worse than anticipated. Hunter Dickinson draining the occasional three doesn’t fundamentally change how defenses approach Michigan; meanwhile, there’s always at least one non-shooter (Diabate), poor shooter (Collins/Jones so far), and/or hesitant shooter (Brandon Johns) on the floor at all times.