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Michigan Thwarted by Basketball Innovation

Unless you were trying to prove a point about your intellectual superiority by eschewing television on Saturday, or you don't make a habit of watching mid-level basketball teams struggle with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom major-conference college basketball (it's a think piece), you already know that Michigan lost to UCLA yesterday, 68-61. You might have also seen this post.

As I wrote yesterday, it was very discouraging watching Michigan, when confronted by a real opponent with an athletic roster, revert to the worst habits that have characterized the Tommy Amaker era. But even worse than a loss--and please, Lloyd Carr, take notes here--was reading, in the aftermath, that Amaker was pleased with UM's strategy and would rely on it in the future:

The smaller Bruins, going mostly with a 6-foot-8 front line of Lorenzo Mata and Ryan Wright, would double team down low against the Wolverines' Courtney Sims (6-11), Chris Hunter (6-11) and Brown (6-9). Sims, who was averaging 16.4 points, was held to three shots and six points. Hunter scored 15 and Brown two. Harris had 14 points, Abram 12 and Horton 10.

The Bruins' aggressive double team opened the perimeter for the Wolverines. But at one point, the Wolverines had made just 3 of 19 three-point tries. Horton was 0-for-7 from beyond the arc...

...Amaker said he was happy with his team's strategy. The Wolverines jumped to an 8-0 lead and led 38-32 with just under 18 minutes left. But the Bruins went on a 17-3 run for a 49-41 lead and built their lead to 61-47 before the Wolverines rallied.

Even though Michigan's outside shots didn't fall, Amaker said he'd do the same thing again.

"They (Bruins) doubled and when you chose to double (down low) you're choosing to decide what shot the opponent may get," Amaker said. "Certainly, they chose for us to shoot the outside shot. And in all honesty that was something that we were looking forward to if that was going to be the case.

"With our perimeter players, with Dion, Daniel and Lester, and if you tell me we're going to get open threes from those guys I'll take my chances. And if that happens for us again we'll do the same thing because that's the way we believe in our players, but we didn't make them. But I'm hoping if that happens again that we will make them."
I don't even know where to start with this. First of all, as the semi-frequent and always insightful Straight Bangin' poster Alando wrote, "The failure to prepare for the double team is inexplicable." And not only that, it's unacceptable. The double team has only been around for, oh, I don't know, ever, and Amaker and his players should have understood how to play against it. That's basketball 101, and the responsibility for teaching it rests 100% with the coach. Furthermore, Amaker is quoted as saying that the UCLA double teams invited UM to shoot from the outside, but that neglects the real problems: there was no motion when UCLA doubled; the players didn't know where to get the ball; and nothing changed throughout the game. Sure the double teams may have made UCLA more vulnerable to three-point shots, but why settle for those low-percentage shots and blame the outcome on bad luck and bad shooting when better alternatives exist?

When UCLA would double a post player, there was oftentimes wide-open space near the foul line, a spot on the floor from which a properly coached player could have driven to the basket; reversed the ball to a weak-side wing player for a shot, a drive around a closing-out defender, or a bounce pass into the post; or taken an open fifteen-footer. But none of that was happening. Nor was anyone cutting to the front of the rim, a space often left vulnerable by a defender who leaves the middle to assist the on-ball defender while trapping.

If I know this stuff, Amaker knows this stuff, and if I was thinking it during the game, Amaker should have been. I cannot write this enough: For all of his personal charm and admirable program-building efforts, Tommy Amaker has yet to distinguish himself in the two ways most important for basketball success--in practice and in games. Hallmarks of Michigan basketball in the past few seasons have been the team's carelessness with the ball, its horrible defensive break downs against talented opponents, and its embarrassingly inadequate fundamentals. Good, well-coached, winning basketball teams are often characterized by five things: good free-throw shooting; consistent boxing out; coordinated defensive rotations; effective offensive execution; and smart preparation for specific situations. Does Michigan look like that when it's playing teams other than the South Floridas of the world?

Saturday's loss did not invalidate the positives displayed during Michigan's 7-0 start or condemn the team to mediocrity. However, it did make those of us who were skeptical about this team seem a little less negative and little more right. It also may have confirmed some things that I have written before: Michigan is not talented enough to realistically expect to defeat elite teams, and Courtney Sims cannot consistently produce against real, athletic big men. Most importantly, though, it reinforced why college basketball is a coach's game, and why Michigan will only go as far as Tommy Amaker can take it.

It is only appropriate that a day after Michigan loses to UCLA because of faulty coaching and inexcusable strategic breakdowns, I am reminded of John Wooden's greatest maxim: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Some other thoughts:
- What happened to Lester Abram? Most of the time, you hardly notice that he's on the floor.
- Dion Harris should rely on his mid-range jumper more often because he is not reliable enough from long range and Michigan appears to again be abiding by its self-imposed prohibition of dribble penetration.
- Daniel Horton hopped in a time machine and reverted to his old, inefficient self: 5-17 from the field, 0-7 from three, 6 assists (yay!), 5 turnovers (boo!).
- Michigan has not played an effective 2-3 zone in recent years, and Saturday did little to rectify that situation. Arron (you know, like Dwyane and Anfernee) Afflalo is still open.

For a different take on the game, check out Nestor's post at Bruins Nation.