Fatal Flaw: Why Michigan Won't Win National Title

Thursday, February 7, 2019 3:08 PM UTC

Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 3:08 PM UTC

The Wolverines were runners-up in last year's NCAA Tournament and are considered contenders for this year's title. They have some important weaknesses, though, which will keep them from winning it all.

Early this season, Michigan (+1000 at BetOnline to win it all) looked like a shoo-in to win the NCAA Tournament. They destroyed defending champion Villanova and the winner of the previous year's tournament, North Carolina. Those wins look less impressive now. Villanova is a different team now than it was then -- in the early part of the season when it was adjusting to the departure of its star point guard and numerous other crucial scorers. Likewise, UNC is stiffening its defense and developing freshman point guard Coby White.

Michigan, too, has looked less convincing. In the past three weeks, they have lost at Wisconsin and at Iowa. In both of those games, their offense failed to eclipse 60 points. Against Iowa, they allowed a season-high 74 points. In each of those games, they shot poorly from three, converting five of 18 attempts (27.8%) against Wisconsin and eight of 33 (24.2%) against Iowa. When UM nearly lost to lowly Northwestern on December 4, the Wildcats allowed point guard Xavier Simpson and center Jon Teske to attempt open threes and both helped to almost cost their team the game by going 0-for-7 from behind the arc.

Poor three-point shooting is a major flaw of this year's Wolverines. When they made the NCAA title game last year, their three-point shooting had improved in the second half of the year thanks to guys such as Moritz Wagner and Duncan Robinson, who have now departed. This year, Michigan's three-point percentage is 35, which ranks 135th, and has dropped to 32.8 during conference play, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten.

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The shortcomings of Michigan's shooters can make it hard for the team to keep up even with teams such as Wisconsin that are not really known for their offensive prowess. If Michigan was to face a more prolific offense and not make enough threes, then it would be in even more serious trouble. While Michigan is balanced offensively, it lacks a dominant scorer who it can rely on in crunch time. Iggy Brazdeikis leads the team with 15.5 points per game. Against Wisconsin the freshman scored zero points and against Iowa he mustered 16 points while attempting 15 shots and turning it over twice. Likewise inconsistent, sophomore Jordan Poole disappears offensively for games at a time, hurting his team with three turnovers against both Iowa and Wisconsin.

History says three-point shooting is important. With a lot of threes, it's easier to come back in a game or put a team away. Last year's champion, Villanova, ranked 11th in three-point percentage and converted at least 10 threes in every tournament game besides one, which was the one time Villanova scored fewer than 79 points. The 2016 Villanova team had similar success from three during the tournament, and Duke in 2015 ranked 26th in three-point percentage. The 2017 North Carolina championship team was, exceptionally, not a good three-point shooting team, and had to defy probability by surviving many consecutive tight games in the tournament. Those teams also tended to have experienced, go-to scorers such as Jalen Brunson for 2018 Villanova, Joel Berry for 2017 North Carolina, etc.

When Michigan lost to Iowa, its lack of depth became apparent. Out of 351 Division-I teams, the Wolverines rank dead-last in minutes accrued by their bench. They rely primarily on Xavier Simpson at point guard, Poole at shooting guard, Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews at forward, and Teske at center. Matthews, Poole, and Simpson rank top-360 in percentage of minutes played. Backup guard Eli Brooks gets 14 minutes per game, backup forward Isaiah Livers sees 21 minutes per game, and no other player averages more than 4.6 minutes per game.

Iowa could pound it inside the paint against Michigan and draw five fouls from Teske and four from Livers, thereby giving Michigan's interior depth a hard test. It's difficult to succeed inside without big men, and big men don't perform as aggressively when they are in foul trouble, so Iowa was able to double Michigan's point total in the paint, outrebound them 48-36, and free up more space for their shooters, who converted six of 14 three-point attempts.

Lack of depth, poor three-point shooting, and the absence of a veteran go-to scorer down the stretch -- Poole, a sophomore, averaged only 8.6 minutes in last year's tournament -- will keep Michigan from winning the NCAA title.

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