Dominance inside 3-point line keys Michigan's winning formula
Six weeks into the college basketball season, only a few Division I teams have been able to match Michigan’s 9-0 start.
But no one has been able to rival the Wolverines’ dominance inside the 3-point line, which has arguably been the biggest key to their success so far.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game against No. 16 Minnesota at Crisler Center, Michigan is the lone team in the country to rank in the top 10 in 2-point offense and defense, according to KenPom.com. And only three other teams — Colgate (1-1), Creighton (8-2) and Wright State (7-2) — rank in the top 30 in both categories.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Wolverines are holding opponents to 39.2% shooting on 2-point field-goal attempts — a mark that’s well below the nation’s average of 49.7%, is the fifth lowest percentage in the country and leads the Big Ten.
"It boils down to contesting every shot,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “That's a big emphasis that we have — making every shot a challenge and making sure it's a hand-ball contest. I think that plays a big factor.”
Per BartTorvik.com, Michigan’s rim defense has been average — 58.9% on close 2s like dunks, tips and layups — but the Wolverines have limited those opportunities and have allowed opponents to only take roughly a quarter of their shots near the rim.
Rather, Michigan has thrived at forcing foes to settle for mid-range looks, where opponents have put up more attempts (38.8% of shots) with much less success (26.2%). Both of those percentages rank No. 12 nationally.
“Like Coach (Juwan) Howard says, we have to make them make tough shots,” senior guard Chaundee Brown said. “We want them to walk out this gym and say that every shot they took was hard and difficult.”
Grad transfer guard Mike Smith said Howard constantly talks about every player on the floor having each other’s back. Smith used an example from Michigan’s win over Northwestern when he got beat off the dribble and sophomore wing Franz Wagner switched onto the player and blocked the shot.
“I think trying to make the right play for the defense — taking charges, being in the right spot and being in our gaps to help our brothers and not leave them on an island out there (has played a role),” Smith said. “I think that's going to be crucial (against Minnesota), especially with a top-tier guard like Marcus Carr.
“We have to be in our gaps and be able to talk and communicate because that's something a lot of teams don't do is communicate and be in the right spot. I think that's what has attributed to our really good defense.”
It also helps to have a 7-foot paint deterrent like freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who credited some of the team’s stinginess inside the arc to assistant coach Saddi Washington.
“He’s always preaching staying in our gaps, in our shrinks,” Dickinson said. “I think doing that really makes it easier for whoever is guarding the ball to have confidence that he’s not getting beat and there’s help behind him. I think it encourages the ball-handler to be even more aggressive up there knowing that their teammates have their back in their shrinks and in the gaps.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Michigan has been just as good, making 61.7% of its 2-point attempts. That mark ranks sixth in the country, is tops in the Big Ten and is well above the same 49.7% national average.
The Wolverines have excelled around the rim, per BartTorvik.com, making 94.3% of their dunks and shooting 75.1% on close 2s. They’re also connecting at a 45.6%-clip on all other 2-point attempts. Among Big Ten teams, Michigan ranks first and second, respectively, in the last two categories.
"Coach wants us to play inside-out,” Smith said. “But just being able to drive teams opens up everything else that we need. And the way Hunter is playing, getting the ball down there and he's shooting (74.4%) from inside, so that's helping us.”
Michigan’s balanced attack features five players who are shooting above 60% on 2-point attempts: fifth-year senior center Austin Davis (75%), junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. (70.6%), Wagner (63.3%) and Brown (62.1%) in addition to Dickinson, who opposing defenses haven’t had an answer for.
“I think Hunter has done a tremendous job of establishing our interior presence down low in the post,” Washington said. “He's a load to guard down there and he draws a lot of attention, which opens up opportunities for guys on the perimeter either to look for open catch-and-shoot 3s or to get downhill when attacking their closeout.”
Washington added much of Michigan’s success inside the 3-point line is a product of the players being in tune with the scouting report and in sync with one another.
“I think in a lot of cases, coaches get a lot of press or whatever for trying to come up with schemes, and we all try to come up with offensive and defensive schemes. But at the end of the day, it's about the guys on the floor,” Washington said. “Coach Juwan has put a huge emphasis on just competing at both ends of the floor.”