Forecasting the near futures of the nation’s two best defenses



To the casual fan it must seem that, on or about November 10, 2017, John Beilein was abducted from his home while he slept and was replaced by a cunning cyborg body double running the software package branded as “Deluxe Tony Bennett 2.0 Except for the NCAA Tournament.”

That’s one possibility. Another is that Beilein hired something of a defensive mastermind the previous summer in the form of assistant coach Luke Yaklich.

As has been well documented, Michigan’s defense has been on a tear since Yaklich arrived in Ann Arbor. Indeed, this marks the assistant coach’s third consecutive season of incredible D.

The first took place when Yaklich was still on Dan Muller’s staff at Illinois State, and one of the most remarkable aspects of the assistant’s personal streak is surely that it started after he lost the nation’s No. 1 shot-blocker. Only when Reggie Lynch transferred out of Normal and embarked on his ill-fated journey to Minnesota did the ISU defense achieve escape velocity. Yaklich plainly knows his stuff.

Just don’t forget the guy (pictured above) who hired him. If you really are the Mozart of defense, or, for that matter, of offense, you definitely want to work for a head coach who’s made it his life’s work to pop lightly recruited talent into his personal development microwave for 30 seconds and then pull them out as plug-and-play standouts.

With all due respect to Yaklich, that’s the part that’s pure John Beilein. (It’s why the head coach has trouble getting proper statistical credit for traditional year-to-year player development. His players are too often too good too soon.) We’ve been watching this happen with uncanny regularity ever since the players were named Gansey or Pittsnogle instead of Brazdeikis

The most extreme aspect of an extreme Michigan defense is the fact that opponents can’t make two-point shots. Naturally, it’s just November, and we don’t know, yet, if the Wolverines will truly turn out to be a great interior defense in the historical sense of that term. But, if that is indeed what transpires in 2019, then we do know where this Beilein-Yaklich Frankenstein monster will end up, at least in terms of that one metric.

All great interior defenses end up at the same statistical spot. It’s eerie, like the performance equivalent of the East Australian Current….


So, yes, Michigan blends in comfortably with the early performances of past great defenses. The statistical excellence is real, and, barring unforeseen events, it probably isn’t going anywhere. That being said, relative visual normalcy is likely to pay a visit to the Wolverine defense anyway.

After all, relative visual normalcy came for the Kentucky defense in 2015 (cf. the overtime win at home in the SEC opener over an Ole Miss team that scored 1.14 points per possession) and it came for the Michigan State defense last season (the Spartans forced turnovers on a lower percentage of possessions than any defense in major-conference play in the last five years). It even came for the Beilein-Yaklich defense last season in West Lafayette, when victorious Purdue gashed UM for 1.41 points per trip in a highly entertaining 92-88 shootout. Relative visual normalcy is likely coming for Michigan.

Who knows, it could arrive as soon as this week, in the form of North Carolina’s visit to Ann Arbor. You may have heard that the Tar Heels are pretty good at offensive rebounding, and UNC will additionally serve as both the biggest and, by far, the fastest-paced opponent the Wolverines have played to date. Reasonable eager spectators can differ, but put North Carolina at Michigan down as the game I’m most looking forward to seeing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

In short, be it this week or some other time, Beilein will have to revert to his old ways and score some points when relative normalcy does at last strike the UM defense. Certainly, at the moment, Michigan looks pretty good on that side of the ball in terms of adjusted efficiency. (The pretty good look is in part a reflection of preseason projections.) Still, one thing to watch going forward will be whether an offense that, so far, is making less than 33 percent of its threes will really continue to earn the respect of laptops and, far more importantly, that of perimeter defenders on opposing teams.

If that answer turns out to be something in the neighborhood of a maybe, I for one look forward to an inverted but otherwise faithful reprise of the great UCLA debate of 2017. That was when everyone wanted to know whether a team saddled with a so-so defense but also blessed with Lonzo Ball and an extraordinarily great offense could “really” be considered a Final Four contender. As usual, that discussion turned out to be something of a moot point. Steve Alford’s No. 3-seeded team lost in the Sweet 16 to No. 2 seed Kentucky, just as it “should” have.

With analytic luck, Michigan will turn out to be as so-so on offense as the Bruins were two years ago on D, and writers will busy themselves in February clicking through KenPom pages to find the worst offense “ever” to make the Final Four. (My money’s on Louisville 2012.)

Which brings us to Michigan’s comrade in “outrageous defense” arms, Virginia. The Cavalier offense, apparently, won’t be an issue this season. True, saying points won’t be a problem in Charlottesville goes against the mother of all narratives for a team that’s synonymous with both great defense and miserable NCAA tournament experiences. Then again, when you allow UMBC to score 1.53 points per trip in the second half, the problem, for better or worse, is not your scoring.

Indeed, Tony Bennett’s team is something of a mystery for two very good reasons. First, there’s the small matter of the aforementioned Retrievers, and the unprecedented question of how college basketball players react the season after their program lost by 20 points to a No. 16 seed. Second, there is the far more mundane fact that, while beating Wisconsin in the Bahamas is a really good win, the Hoos’ game at Maryland this week will mark the first time these guys have played on an opponent’s home floor.

No, we’ve never seen a team walk a mile in Virginia’s post-UMBC shoes, but, if you had to guess, you’d wager that this defense will be fine….

Early-season Virginia D under Bennett
After six games vs final results

              After six games            Final KenPom
      Opp. PPP  Opp. 2FG%   Opp. TO%     Adj DE (rank)
2019    0.81      46.6        24.3             ?
2018    0.84      41.6        21.6          85.6 (1)
2017    0.70      31.7        25.0          88.0 (2)
2016    0.92      43.6        19.2          91.0 (7)
2015    0.77      31.4        19.4          85.5 (2)          

Virginia played a tougher first six games than usual last year, but, otherwise, these numbers were compiled against similar levels of early-season competition.

Ordinarily, this is where I’d say Braxton Key’s been a nice addition and that the Alabama transfer harassed overmatched opponents into coughing up 10 giveaways in his first 209 defensive possessions on the floor. Alas, Key was replaced in the starting lineup against Wisconsin (and then given just 12 minutes) in favor of Kihei Clark — all 5-9 and 155 pounds of him — and the freshman was praised pointedly by Bennett after the Hoos’ 53-46 win.


(Virginia Athletics)

It’s a good problem for Bennett to have, and, anyway, that win over the Badgers perhaps holds a fair degree of descriptive value. Despite scoring just 46 points, Greg Gard’s team actually shot better from the field than did Virginia. Then again, when you give the ball away on better than one in five possessions and rebound just 14 percent of your misses, you’re going to be starved of scoring opportunities. Wisconsin’s shot volume index for the game (83.8) was far lower than what Pitt posted in ACC play last season (87.8), and the Panthers ranked No. 75 on that metric in major-conference play out of 75 teams.

Suffice it to say the Cavaliers are yet again on-track for a national top-two or -three finish for adjusted defensive efficiency despite having allowed opponents to make almost 47 percent of their twos so far. As they did in each of the previous two seasons, the Hoos are severely limiting their opponents’ scoring chances. That turnover rate by opposing offenses will of course go down in ACC play, but it’s likely to still be very good relative to UVA’s peer defenses in the league.

Who knows, it may be the case in 2019 that we’ll need to watch the Michigan and Virginia defenses in slightly different ways to appreciate how good they both really are. If early returns are any indication, the Wolverines may achieve their results first and foremost through forcing misses, while the Cavaliers could end up putting more of an emphasis on preventing attempts entirely. Admire accordingly.