John Beilein should send a thank-you letter to Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall on Tuesday if Michigan is victorious in Monday’s championship against Louisville.
Beilein has one full day to prepare for that relentless Louisville press—a herculean task—but his game plan has already been delivered, via Marshall.
The Shockers had only 11 turnovers on Saturday night, which tied Notre Dame for the fewest turnovers against Louisville all season. Wichita State should have had the best mark, as that one final turnover was a quick-whistle jump ball, wiping away the chance for Marshall’s team to tie the game in the final seconds. That was unfortunate.
But if Michigan wins, Marshall at least gets an assist.
This was his game plan, and it was quite simple:
- Get the ball inbounds.
- Everyone get the heck out of the way and up the court.
- Let your ball-handler beat one man off the dribble instead of two or three.
This strategy makes sense, right? But that’s not what we see out of most Louisville opponents. Most are fearful of putting their point guards on an island against Russ Smith or Peyton Siva. It’s an understandable fear.
But Michigan has Trey Burke, and if you’re putting a man on an island, it might as well be the best point guard in the country.
The concern is how much energy it takes for one player to beat such pressure. Wichita State used multiple players to bring the ball up, and Michigan can do the same.
The Wolverines were fortunate enough to face a similar full-court press against VCU's "Havoc" in the round of 32, and for much of the game they took Burke off the ball and had Tim Hardaway Jr. at point.
Much like Baker, Hardaway hesitates before he brings the ball up to make sure that his teammates (and the VCU defenders) clear out.
The other thing Michigan did well was to attack the pressure when VCU gambled or trailed the play, as Burke does here.
The other key against Louisville’s pressure is to keep the ball in the middle of the court. Notice in the clip below how as soon as Burke gets the ball, he dribbles to the middle of the floor. If you are on the sideline, you can only go one way, and the sideline acts as another defender. In this clip, when VCU runs a second defender at Burke, he’s able to easily hit Hardaway, who in this case stayed back to help.
The next clip is what happens when you do exactly what VCU or Louisville wants. Hardaway dribbled down the sideline and right into a trap. (He was lucky that he got fouled in this situation.)
For most of the game against VCU, Michigan avoided these mistakes and attacked the press perfectly. The Wolverines had only 12 turnovers, which was the third-lowest number of turnovers against VCU all season. Michigan also had only 12 turnovers against Arkansas’ press on Dec. 8.
Michigan was the worst possible matchup for VCU, and you could say the same thing for Louisville.
Not only have the Wolverines faced similar defenses twice, they turn the ball over on only 14.5 percent of their possessions, which is the lowest turnover rate in the country (according to KenPom.com). They have two ball-handlers in Burke and Hardaway, and against VCU, they did a good job of mixing it up by sometimes slowly getting the ball up the court and other times attacking off the press break.
When they were able to attack, they have an excellent finisher in Mitch McGary, who had 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting in the 78-53 win over VCU.
VCU was the only team in the country this year better at forcing turnovers than Louisville, but what makes Louisville an all-around better defense is the ability to defend in the half court. Opponents make only 43.1 percent of their twos against Louisville, compared to 50.1 percent against VCU.
The Cardinals mix both man-to-man and zone, and they have a rim protector in Gorgui Dieng. That made Syracuse the perfect prep for Michigan, because the zones are similar.
The Shockers did a masterful job of avoiding mistakes, but the pressure did eventually get to them as they had seven of their 10 turnovers in the final seven minutes. If there’s a reason for Michigan to be concerned, it is the way Michigan dealt with Syracuse’s press down the stretch—the Wolverines gave it away three times in just over a minute once Syracuse started pressing.
That should give Rick Pitino some hope. But so long as the Wolverines stick to their plan and don’t get sped up, they have the blueprint to beat the pressure.