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Michigan's Troubling Shot Selection

A look at Michigan's shot charts reveals a troubling trend in the Wolverines' shot selection. We break down what it means for Michigan.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, ESPN college basketball analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg previewed tomorrow's high-profile matchup between Michigan and No. 3 Arizona. You can watch the video here. In the preview, Greenberg reflected on Michigan's two upset losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan and argued that, to get back on track, Michigan needs to find a low-post presence offensively.

I scoffed at this notion. If anyone has proven that a low-post presence is not necessary to run an uber-efficient offense, it's John Beilein and Michigan. I don't know precise percentages because I don't have a Synergy Sports subscription, but Dylan Burkhardt of UM Hoops does, and, at different times the past two seasons, he indicated that very few teams, if any, post up as infrequently as Michigan. And guess what? In both seasons, Michigan led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, and, last year, the Wolverines posted the best team offensive rating in the KenPom era (since 2000-01).

So, no, Seth Greenberg, Michigan doesn't need to find a low-post presence.

But Greenberg's comment got me thinking, which in turn got me digging through some numbers. What did I find? Although Greenberg's assertion Michigan needs a low-post presence is incorrect, his implication that Michigan is not attacking the rim is correct.

At least that's been the case just the past two weeks.

You see, Michigan actually attacked the basket quite often in the opening weeks of the season. In fact, the Wolverines took more shots at the rim, which Shot Analytics defines as "five feet away or closer," than they did at any other spot on the court:

Michigan's Shot Distribution (First Five Games)
Opponent Shots at Rim (Rim) Rim / FGA Mid-Range (MR) MR / FGA Threes (3PA) 3PA / FGA
Hillsdale 22 37.9% 17 29.3% 19 32.8%
Bucknell 21 32.8% 25 39.1% 18 28.1%
Detroit 18 34.0% 11 20.7% 24 45.3%
Oregon 23 50.0% 10 21.7% 13 28.3%
Villanova 20 35.7% 15 26.8% 21 37.5%
Total 104 37.5% 78 28.2% 95 34.3%

(Data Source: Shot Analytics)

In their first five games, the Wolverines took 37.5 percent of their shots near the basket, while 28.2 percent were mid-range jumpers and 34.3 percent were threes. What stands out most is how consistent Michigan was at getting to the cylinder. In four of those first five games, looks at the rim accounted for between 32.8 and 37.9 percent of Michigan's field-goal attempts. And the one game that didn't fit within that range was against Oregon, when Michigan took a season-high half of its shots within five feet of the basket.

That Oregon game represented the aggressive offensive mindset the Wolverines had then. Oregon's defensive plan was to press the perimeter and limit Michigan's three-point attempts. Though Oregon accomplished its goal, holding Michigan to just 13 shots from downtown, the Wolverines exploited Oregon's strategy by blowing past the Ducks' closeouts repeatedly for easy baskets. Even Zak Irvin got in on the fun. Irvin, who loves to gun it from deep, converted not one, not two, but three nifty drives that night:

But Michigan hasn't been the same since it flew home from the Progressive Legends Classic two weeks ago. In their four games thereafter, the Wolverines have resembled a different sort of outfit. No longer are they attacking the rim and working to get the ball inside for easy looks around the basket. Instead, they're settling for long-range jumpers:

Michigan's Shot Distribution (Last Four Games)
Opponent Shots at Rim (Rim) Rim / FGA Mid-Range (MR) MR / FGA Threes (3PA) 3PA / FGA
Nicholls State 16 27.6% 18 31.0% 24 41.4%
Syracuse 17 26.2% 15 23.1% 33 50.7%
NJIT 8 14.8% 22 40.7% 24 44.5%
Eastern Michigan 10 23.3% 12 27.9% 21 48.8%
Total 51 23.2% 67 30.4% 102 46.4%

(Data Source: Shot Analytics)

In Michigan's last four games, only 23.2 percent of its shots have been at the rim, while 30.4 percent have been from mid-range and 46.4 percent have been threes. Though the percentage of mid-range shots has remained relatively static throughout the season, there has been a wild shift in the number of shots at the rim and threes that Michigan has taken in recent weeks. After releasing at least 30 percent of their field-goal attempts at the rim in each of their first five games, the Wolverines didn't hit that mark once in their previous four. Further, their percentage of three-pointers eclipsed 40 percent only once in their first five games, but they have surpassed that level in all four since then.

Basically, Michigan's substituting a big chunk of the bunnies it took previously for threes.

This may surprise you, but, in the long run, such a shift in shot distribution is not that alarming. If a team wants to have an efficient offense, the two best shots to take are layups and three-pointers. And the value of both is about equal. Though a team is less likely to make a three than a layup, the bonus of the third point when a team drains a shot from downtown is sufficient incentive to shoot them. For example, Michigan has made 88-of-155 (56.8 pct.) of its shots at the rim and 79-of-197 (40.1 pct.) of its threes. While Michigan's converted a higher percentage of its shots at the rim, these percentages don't account for the value of the three's third point. But eFG% does, counting threes as 1.5 field goals made. Thus, Michigan's eFG% for its shots at the rim is 56.8 percent, while its eFG% for threes is 60.2 percent. As you can see, these shots have similar value.

But, in the short run, this shift in Michigan's shot distribution is quite alarming thanks to this basketball cliché: "live by the three, die by the three." While threes and layups have similar value, three-point success generally is much more volatile than close-range success. You never hear about players getting hot or cold on their layups, while you always hear about players getting hot or cold on their threes. This is why such a heavy reliance on three-pointers can be troublesome. While the Wolverines will have their games where they can't miss from beyond the arc, like when the they dropped 14-of-24 triples against Nicholls State, they will also have their games when they go 4-of-21:

And, just like that, Michigan fell victim to an upset in its second straight home game.

So it's in Michigan's best interest to return to its former ways and start taking shots around the hoop. This will help stabilize its offense in a time when Michigan cannot afford another lull and potential upset loss. The good news is that Michigan will not see the 2-3 zone that Syracuse and Eastern Michigan deploys much, if at all, for the rest of the season. Those zones were excellent at obstructing movement off the ball and shutting off interior passing lanes, which forced the Wolverines to swing the ball around the perimeter endlessly and suckered them into awful, contested three-point jacks. Michigan was a stagnant mess against those zones, barring when Spike Albrecht transformed into Steve Nash in the second half against Syracuse and broke down the zone from inside.

Michigan's offense shouldn't be a stagnant mess against the man defenses it'll see the rest of the way, starting tomorrow against Arizona. But this doesn't guarantee that the Wolverines still won't settle for jumpers. Just look at Michigan's shot chart against NJIT. Despite that NJIT is one of the shortest teams in the nation and runs a man defense, only eight of Michigan's 54 shots against the Highlanders were at the rim. Eight. That's it.

It's plain and simple: Michigan needs to attack the rim, even so tomorrow against the Wildcats' absurd length This means Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert need to dribble past closeouts and penetrate deeper into the paint for layups. This means Irvin needs to do something other than stand around the arc and launch threes. This means Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal need to set sounder screens on pick and rolls to open space up for Walton and LeVert. This means Kameron Chatman needs to demonstrate he can do something -- anything -- productive around the basket. If Michigan can start doing these things, then Wolverines will make their presence known around the rim.

And Michigan would do it without needing to post up once.