Let's hit the numbers. First, here's the four factors chart from Michigan's impressive 75-45 win over Tennessee in the opening round:
What are we seeing here? First, Michigan shot the hell out of the ball. An effective field goal percentage of 58.6 is going to win most games. They were semi-efficient from 3 (9-26), but they really excelled inside the arc, making 24 of 38 shots for an excellent 63.2%.
If you look at their advanced stats on this page, you can also see that they controlled the pace of play. Tennessee averages 68 possessions per game, while Michigan averages 63 (among the 20 slowest paces in Division 1). The final possession total in this game? 63. Although Michigan played well above their usual efficiency, their turnover rate was almost exactly at the season average (17.5 Friday to the usual 16.2).
One area where they thrived was on the offensive glass, coming away with the rebound on 37.5% of their shots, a number dwarfing their season average of 25.8 (an incredibly low number, incidentally: 323rd in Division 1).
Last: Michigan is usually terrible at getting to the line. They're third-to-last in the country, just ahead of Iowa St. and Hartford. Yesterday was no exception. They attempted exactly one foul shot, and didn't convert.
So what does this mean for today's game? You can look at Michigan's first win in one of two ways, and I think both have merit. First, this is a team that's playing really well. They've won 8 of their last 11, and the only three losses looked this: by 2 to Illinois on the road, by 1 to Wisconsin at home, and by 7 to OSU in the Big-10 tournament. That's three tourney teams, and none of them won by much. Pretty scary.
On the other hand, Tennessee is a team in a tailspin. They finished the season losing 8 of their last 12, and once Michigan started pulling away, it was pretty obvious that they quit on their coach. That somewhat explains the final margin and some of the gaudier stats, like Michigan's offensive boards.
Because of these two very legitimate perspectives, it's difficult to tell exactly how much to fear the Wolverines. Here's the pre-game Four Factors chart:
Duke is slightly more efficient, turns the ball over at a marginally higher rate, and trumps Michigan on offensive boards and free throw rate. KenPom's page gives us an even deeper idea of the enemy. They're 28th in defensive efficiency in the country, but they don't get blocks, steals, or turnovers of any kind. Which is typical of the Big-10, a conference featuring entrenched defenses that make every basket difficult without necessarily applying aggressive backcourt pressure. Needless to say, they'll never press; these are the anti-Pitinos.
The Wolverines are very good at defending the 3, which is disconcerting, but not as good at preventing inside points. We're not dealing with a very big team; Jordan Morgan at 6'8" and Evan Smotrycz at 6'9" will combine for about 40 minutes, but beyond that we're dealing with 6'5" and below. Morgan shoots an excellent 62.3% from the floor, though he only averages 9.2 points per game. He's also decent, but only decent, at blocking shots. Smotrycz scores 6 per game, but he's a lot less adept on offense.
The strength of the Wolverines is at the guard positions. Darius Morris leads the team with 15 points per game, and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a close second at 13.8. Hardaway, Zack Novak, and Stu Douglass all shoot threes at a nice 37% clip, and Michigan loves to bomb; they're 13th in the country in 3-point FGA/total FGA, a measure of how often a team shoots threes relative to every other kind of shot. It should come as no surprise, with so many guards on the floor, that it's also very hard to turn them over; they're 16th in that category (losing the ball on only 16.7% of possessions), and they rarely concede steals.
Okay. The numbers are out there. Here's the analysis:
1) As with any small team we play, there's one huge key: Singler. Singler, Singler, Singler. He should excel. Unless Michigan wants to take one of their guards out and play Morgan and Smotrycz at the same time, the reigning Final Four MOP will be guarded by someone 6'5" or below. With a minimum three-inch height advantage, he'll be a focal point of the offense. Post-ups, 15-foot jumpers, and curls off screens will be the bread and butter, and Michigan won't have a good answer. The only thing that can prevent a great game for Singler is Singler himself. Fortunately, his shots seem to fall in the absence of a big defender as predictably as they miss when he's matched against someone his own size.
2) Three-point shooting will be critical. Interior defense will be hard enough for Michigan; if we hit threes at our usual clip, they won't win. It's pretty much that simple. Duke lost to exactly one team without a very good big man this season (St. John's), and that loss happened because we went ice cold from deep. If we see a repeat today, it could mean trouble. But if we hit, we'll win. And the big men can help the cause with smart passing from the post.
The only thing that might hurt us here is that while Michigan is small underneath, they have some height at the guard positions. Novak, Douglass, Morris, and Hardaway are all between 6'3" and 6'5", which is part of the reason why Michigan does so well defending the three. Seth Curry could have trouble getting his shot off, and Dawkins might have a hand in his face more than he's used to. Of course, that could all be nullified if they're constantly collapsing on the post or a Nolan/Kyrie drive.
3) Offensive boards could destroy Michigan. They better look more like the stingy team from the Tennessee game, and less like the inefficient team from the regular season, if they want to survive against Duke. They cannot afford to give up second chance points. I'm looking at the Plumlees to make huge contributions here.
4) They'll need to hit threes. They're not going to score down low; they don't do that anyway, and ours will be the most efficient defense they've seen all season. Duke's efficiency is now tied with Florida State's for best in the country, but we're comparable to Ohio St. and Purdue in that regard. Here's Michigan's offensive output against those teams this season: 57, 64, 53, 61. Unless they get crazy-hot, that's about what they should score against us. And believe me, we'll score more.
5) Pace. How is Coach K going to play this? Duke averages 70 possessions per game, and Michigan averages 63. As we saw, the Wolverines were able to bring Tennessee to their pace of play on Friday. Will Duke dictate the flow of this game, or will they come down to Michigan's level? All too often this season, we've seen Coach K content to play a slower pace. The philosophy seems to be, 'fine, play slow. We'll be more efficient, slowly build a lead, and then your own pace will bite you when you're incapable of mounting a comeback.' Which, to be fair, has worked almost every time. But fewer possessions also means a greater chance for an anomaly loss like we saw at Virginia Tech.
Here's a quick comparison: in Blacksburg, we had 61 possessions. When we beat the Hokies two weeks later, we had 65. A small difference, maybe, but a difference nonetheless. The increase certainly didn't account for the win- better play overall and the neutral court played a larger role- but the fact remains that Duke has a better chance to win when we play at our pace. There's no reason to beat Michigan at their own boring Big-10 style. Let's run.
6) Foul trouble. We need the Plumlees, in the midst of their wonderful resurgence, to be at their best. It's a classic two-Plum game; we'll benefit from having Mason and Miles on the court at the same time. And not only because it frees up Singler to be guarded by someone small; we have a great chance to rake on the offensive glass with both in the paint. Please, Plumlees, avoid the stupid foul. Be smart. No unnecessary slaps, no hopeless steal attempts, no leaving the ground at every bad pump fake. Stay in the game.
The truth is (and I say this at the risk of a jinx), it would take a disaster for us to lose. And while disasters do happen, we've been playing great basketball. We're too smart, and too good; I don't see a let-down. Does it mean I'm any less nervous? No. But this should, emphatically, be our game. I'm calling for a 76-62 win.
Let me know what I've missed, and how you think this one will play out, in the comments.
It's tournament time for real, gang. The patsies have all been sent home. We've got a nice Washington-UNC appetizer, and then it's time to put on the hard hats. Rise up, Moody Blues. Go Duke!