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Michigan is having a hard time defending 3-pointers

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Opponents have been knocking down shots behind the arc at an alarming rate.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan has rarely been an outstanding defensive team under head coach John Beilein, but the 2016-17 squad showed some potential early on. Although the non-conference schedule was not overly challenging, only two of 13 opponents topped 70 points going into Michigan’s Big Ten opener. The first five games yielded strong defensive numbers, with opponents shooting just 41.7 percent inside the arc and 31.9 percent for three. But that is where the impressive numbers end.

The results over the next nine games were much different. While Michigan was slightly worse defending twos, sitting at 46.1 percent, they were absolutely dismal on long-range shots, allowing 43.4 percent of three point attempts to go in the basket. Though this stretch includes teams like UCLA and the start of conference play, there is plenty of lesser competition as well.

3-point shooting against Michigan vs. season average

Team 3pt% diff
Team 3pt% diff
Howard 1.6
IUPUI -4
Marquette -13.6
SMU -1
South Carolina -9.5
Mount St. Mary's 6.6
Virginia Tech 2.6
Kennesaw State -0.1
Texas 2.4
UCLA 20.1
Central Arkansas 9.4
Maryland-Eastern Shore -1.5
Furman -10.4
Iowa 20.4
A higher differential indicates a team beating their season average when playing Michigan.

One way to visualize this struggle is to compare opponents’ three-point averages to their performance against Michigan. To start the year, the Wolverines held teams like Marquette and South Carolina significantly under their typical long-range shooting percentage. However, the tables have turned significantly, as six of the last nine teams have beaten their average when playing Michigan, including big performances by UCLA and Iowa.

This problem is something new to Michigan. Recent teams have been around 35 percent or better when defending the arc, nowhere close to the current 39.6 percent mark. These three-point defense deficiencies have not translated to other areas. Michigan’s 46.6 percent two-point defense and 62.6 points allowed per game figures are close to or better than where the team has been over the past five seasons.

The exact reason for this breakdown is difficult to pinpoint, but personnel probably plays the biggest role. Michigan’s best players this season have been its forwards instead of the guards, which is a change from most of Beilein’s teams. D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner have surprisingly been two of the better players on the team this year, while veterans like Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin have been more up and down. Accordingly, the perimeter defense has suffered while the paint has been better defended.

The above gallery shows screenshots of each of Iowa’s 11 made three pointers on Sunday. While still photos only tell a partial story, they do show some of what is going on. The defense on many of these attempts does not seem that bad. Irvin and Duncan Robinson have their hands up in multiple shots, although their positioning is sometimes a step behind.

However, the last four shots are a little alarming. Iowa’s four makes during the last five minutes of the second half and overtime are their four most open made threes all game. Michigan was late closing out each time, giving the shooter way too much space. On three of these shots, the Wolverines gave up the lead; the fourth broke the tie and put the Hawkeyes up for good.

Michigan needs to find a way to protect the perimeter better if they want to find success going forward. The bigs are doing a decent job in the paint, but the guards are suspect on too many big shots. The schedule only gets harder for here, so the Wolverines must make their changes sooner rather than later.