Due to a fortunate series of events, the Aztecs are travelling to Michigan. In a twist of fate, Kentucky decided to duck out of a game against the Wolverines. Coach Dutcher was quick to call up his former player and current head coach at Michigan Juwan Howard, and now SDSU has a marquee game against a Big 10 opponent that many thought was a final 4 team in the preseason.
The game is full of storylines and connections between the two programs. Coach Dutcher was an assistant under Steve Fisher at Michigan, and they won a national championship, with Juwan Howard being one of the star players on that team. Now they’ll be facing each other as head coaches of opposing teams.
Michigan has been a top 10 program over the last decade. They’re coming off an Elite 8 loss to UCLA last season. They’re currently ranked 18th in the nation by KenPom after taking a brutal loss to UNC. Despite that, the Wolverines are a tough matchup for any team in the nation, and SDSU will be no different. In order to win, the Aztecs will need to play really well. Better than they’ve played all season. They’re definitely capable of going into a power team’s house and beating them (see Kansas, 2014), but it won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
General Observations –
Michigan under Juwan Howard has been a very good team. Through the first seven games of the season they have the 27th best offense and 16th best defense according to KenPom. They tend to not force a bunch of turnovers, but that didn’t prevent them from having the 4th best defense in the nation according to KenPom last season.
Michigan has one of the best offensive big men in the country in Hunter Dickinson. They also have a big starting lineup, starting three players that are 6’8″ or taller. USC was able to dominate the Aztecs with size and athleticism, and Michigan will look to do the same.
They’ve been hampered by a few things. First, they commit more turnovers than an average team. Second, so far they’ve been one of the worst teams at forcing turnovers. That makes for a dangerous combination. Michigan is minus-12 in turnover differential in their three losses.
Lastly, similar to the Aztecs, they’ve had trouble hitting their outside shots this season. They shot a combined 20% from deep in their three losses.
One thing the Aztecs may benefit from is experience, as Michigan will likely play three seniors and seven freshmen or sophomores, compared to the Aztecs who play seven seniors and no freshman.
The Aztecs have had a couple injuries early in the season. Adam Seiko has been hampered by a quad injury but will hopefully be healthy by Saturday. Lamont Butler just fractured his wrist against Long Beach State and will be out for awhile.
How to Defend Michigan –
Like all great teams, Michigan isn’t reliant on one player. Hunter Dickinson gets most of the possessions, but Michigan is more than capable of winning even if he’s held to single digit scoring. He’ll have plenty of help from guys like Eli Brooks and Caleb Houstan. Nevertheless, the coaching staff needs to find a way to slow this offense down.
The first priority is stopping the post game. When including passes, Michigan’s post game has been more efficient than it’s pick and roll, isolation, or spot up game. Stopping a 7’1″, 255 lb big man down low is tough to do. Especially an All-American with great post moves.
Here’s what I’d do: The first thing is to try to match Nathan Mensah’s minutes with Dickinson. Nathan Mensah is the best post defender on the team, and has experience guarding skilled big men (Luka Garza, Neemias Queta, etc.) Put Mensah in a 3/4 top coverage. This is where the defender attaches themselves to the hip of the post player that’s closest to the top of the key, with a hand in front to deny entry passes. If Dickinson gets the ball play him straight up but know he prefers to turn to his right side. Forcing him left is the better option in single coverage.
Ideally Mensah can make Dickinson work and not give up anything easy. The Aztes will likely send double teams to get the ball out of Dickinson’s hands. Dickinson should at least be doubled occasionally, in order to throw off timing and hopefully cause a turnover. When sending a double team, timing and location are crucial. The double team shouldn’t come until Dickinson takes a dribble. He’s good at holding the ball and waiting for a double to come, ready to pass to an open teammate. Waiting until he dribbles means he’s committed and is less focused on passing. As for location, the double should come from the baseline. It’s harder to see doubles from the baseline so the new defender there will be more likely to take him by surprise and affect the shot or cause a turnover.
Even without a turnover, getting the ball out of Dickinson’s hands will help if Michigan continues to be cold from the floor. The Aztecs have ahd some great 3-point defense this season (6th best in the nation), so forcing someone besides Dickinson to take the shot may be really beneficial.
The rest of the game plan I’d keep pretty similar to what the Aztecs already do. Deny penetration, prevent drives to the rim, etc. Michigan is really good at using backdoor cuts, so the Aztecs can’t use too much ball denial. Michigan also likes to play a slower pace that allows their big man to be the focal point. That being said, they can be deadly when they run, so transition defense will be important even against this slower team.
Given what happened agaisnt USC, boxing out and ending defensive possessions will be crucial. This is another very large team capable of destroying the Aztecs on the glass. If Michigan is getting second, third, and fourth chances, the Aztecs won’t stand a chance.
Plays to watch out for:
Motion offense – Michigan’s motion offense starts with getting Dickinson the ball at the top of the key. After that players would start shuffle cutting across the paint. This would eventually flow into some other action, such as a handoff, pick and roll, or split cut. Anytime Dickinson gets the ball start looking for the shuffle cuts across the paint. The Aztecs will need to defend this by getting hands into passing lanes, and going over on handoffs or screens.
Post Entry – Post ups often flow from a series of passes around the perimeter. The point guard passes to the wing and then shuffle cuts to the opposite corner. The ball then travels around the perimeter back to the point guard in the corner, who then passes the ball to the post. On the catch, Dickinson always waits to see where the double team will come from. When it does he passes back out to the perimeter almost always resulting in an open 3. If the double doesn’t come Dickinson puts the ball on the floor and attacks. The defense will need to fight for position to deny Dickinson a spot on the block.
Back Screens – This is a play Michigan can flow to out of its motion offense. Dickinson passes to the wing then receives a back screen to help him get deep position in the post. In the below instance Dickinson gets the ball from a high-low entry. Same as before, Dickinson holds the ball until a double team comes, then passes the ball back to the perimeter and the result is an open 3. If the double team doesn’t come Dickinson will use post moves to attempt to score. The key here will be communication on the back screen. If SDSU bigs are taken by surprise it’s an easy layup for Dickinson. With appropriate communication and help they can prevent the ball from getting deep into the paint.
Michigan also has a number of stagger screens and Chicago actions that they employ, but the above plays were the ones I saw the most of. They’ll be sure to adjust their playbook based on the opponent.
How to attack the Michigan Defense –
Michigan has one of the best defenses in the country. The Aztecs will need crisp execution against such a talented defense. The good news is, the Aztecs like to run the pick and roll as a central part of their offense, and Michigan hasn’t great at defending the pick and roll. The qualifying statement, of course, is that with Lamont Butler out the pick and roll will be less effective for the Aztecs. Nevertheless, the Aztecs will continue to run pick and rolls and hopefully they’ll continue to have success.
One of the issues with Michigan’s pick and roll defense is ironically, Hunter Dickinson. He’s not very quick or fast, so his coverages are limited. Michigan keeps him in a drop coverage in the pick and roll. He drops to about halfway in between the hoop and the screen. Combine that position with his lack of lateral quickness, and it gives offensive players the opportunity to pull up from behind the arc, pull up in the midrange before meeting him, or blowing by him and getting to the rim.
It’s a coverage that Trey Pulliam may be ideally suited for, with the way he uses his step back hesitation move, he can draw the defense out further before attacking again. Pulliam also has that floater he loves, and has shown some ability to hit midrange pullups as well. The absolute best way to attack a drop coverage, if a team has the right personnel, is to hit pull up threes. That may be asking too much of Pulliam, although he is shooting 39% from deep this season, so maybe he can do it.
Michigan centers often use the same drop principles in off screen coverages as well, so if Mensah or Tomaić set an off ball screen for Seiko or Dinwiddie, it will likely result in a wide open 3 point shot.
Executing in the pick and roll is the Aztecs best bet to score against Michigan.
Bradley may have success too. He’s struggled early on but he is capable of hitting the shots that beat a drop coverage. He should feel comfortable taking the mid-range pullups he loves. He’ll have trouble when he’s (likely) matched up against the 6’8″ Caleb Houstan, but if the Aztecs can get him matched up against the 6’1″ Eli Brooks, Bradley will be able to go to work. Brooks has been a bad defender this season (10th percentile), and Bradley will have a serious size advantage. Brooks has especially struggled in the pick and roll and isolation sets, which are both places Bradley likes to do damage. Finding a way to match Bradley onto Brooks, either with lineups (playing more Baker at the 3) or by forcing switches, will be important.
In addition to the pick and roll, the Aztecs should look to run as much as possible. They’ve shown they can be dangerous in transition, and michigan coughs the ball up more than average. Michigan has had a great transition defense so far, but if the Aztecs can score before Michigan’s rim protectors are in position it will only help their chances.
X-Factor- Keith Dinwiddie
Keith Dinwiddie has had a slow start to the year, same as everyone else on the team. Except for in the ways he hasn’t. He leads the team in +/- through seven games, and for some reason the team plays it’s best when he’s on the floor. It’s hard to figure out exactly why, because he hasn’t been hitting shots, or generating turnovers, he doesn’t have a lot of gravity to stretch out defenses, and yet, the numbers don’t lie.
DInwiddie is an X-factor for more than just what the numbers say though. With Lamont Butler out the Aztecs lack ball handling and playmaking. Butler was creating more shots for teammates than anyone else on the team this season. Dinwiddie won’t step into that role, it’s not his game. However, he has a good enough handle to create shots for himself, and is more than capable of coming off a screen and taking a one dribble pull up against a drop coverage, or coming off a screen to hit a 3-point jumper. He’s started slow, but is hopefully starting to find his stroke after going 4-9 for 12 points against Long Beach State. He needs to play 20+ minutes and hit open shots when he gets them. Every poibnt will be crucial in what is likely to be a defensive slugfest.
Players to watch –
Hunter Dickinson- 13.3 Pts, 7.6 Rebs, 1.9 Asts. As described earlier, he is the center piece for the Michigan offense. The 2nd team All American will have a huge impact on this game, and slowing him down is the first priority.
Eli Brooks- 15 Pts, 4.1 Rebs, 2.6 Asts. Brooks is a 5th year senior guard. He works best as an off ball guard both offensively and defensively. He is one of two Michigan players shooting better than 35% from deep this season. He is the leading scorer due to that accuracy. He’s deadly in transition and in the pick and roll, and is even better off the ball. His defense is generally good, but this season he’s given up a lot of points. The Aztecs should look to continue that trend.
Caleb Houstan– Houstan is a very highly regarded freshman who is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2022 NBA draft. He has struggled to find his way early on, the same way a number of the Aztecs have. His size and Athleticism make him a tough matchup even on off nights though, and the Aztecs need to do everything they can to ensure things don’t start to click for Houstan for at least one more game.