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Column: Michigan’s late-game offense is boring and broken, and they’re running out of time to fix it

The inability to score late in games has been the Wolverines’ Kryptonite the last few seasons.

NCAA Basketball: Jumpman Invitational-Florida at Michigan Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Michigan Wolverines have struggled late in close games over the last few seasons. It’s likely been their biggest problem, and that lack of execution when it matters most is the biggest reason why the Wolverines missed the NCAA Tournament last season; it’s also why U-M is 6-6 so far this season.

The Wolverines are 0-4 this year in games decided by six points or fewer this season, including a four-point loss to Memphis, a three-point loss to Indiana, and losses to Oregon in overtime and Florida in double overtime.

Last season, Michigan was a pathetic 4-13 in games decided by six points or fewer, including a two-month stretch (Nov. 20-Jan. 22) without a win in such games. After that Jan. 22 win over Minnesota — the worst team in the Big Ten last season — the Wolverines lost their next six games decided by six or less, including a one-point loss to Vanderbilt in the NIT to end the season.

After all those close losses, the Wolverines made it a priority to practice those late game simulations, with associate head coach Phil Martelli saying the team has been working on having the confidence to take and make shots late in close games.

“We’ve dedicated ourselves to those situations,” Martelli said in mid-October. “We’re (telling) guys, ‘Do you have the courage to take a shot, not make a shot.’ Right? Everybody wants to take it, but you have to have courage in order to be willing to miss a shot. We’re still working on that.”

Well, it’s hard to inspire confidence in a basketball team that just keeps failing; just ask the Detroit Pistons how that’s going. I don’t believe confidence is the only issue here, though; I don’t think the coaching staff has been creative enough when it comes to play-calling late in these games.

I went through and rewatched every offensive possession in the final five minutes of regulation, overtime and double overtime in the loss to Florida. (To see most of the possessions for yourself, fast forward to the 10:42 mark in the clip below)

A log of Michigan’s offensive possessions late in Florida loss
Screenshot from Kellen Voss

Here’s a few observations from re-watching these possessions:

-Over those 15 minutes of game time, the Wolverines made seven field goals. Two of those field goals were desperation threes at the edge of garbage time, and the Wolverines had zero made field goals in the first overtime period. That stretch with free throws being the sole source of offense cost Michigan the game, especially with the Wolverines playing solid defense during that five-minute stretch.

-Almost every possession starts with a Dug McDaniel pick-and-roll, usually run with Tarris Reed Jr. Near the end of the game, Florida shaded another defender McDaniel’s way, clogging driving lanes and forcing McDaniel to defer to his teammates. Pretty much every team in college basketball utilizes pick-and-rolls, but the Wolverines run them so often late in games that it’s become painfully predictable.

-Nkamhoua took A LOT of shots in the second overtime, especially with McDaniel unable to get much going in the first overtime period. He was the only Wolverine to attempt a shot in the first 3:09 of the second overtime.

-The lack of ball movement late in these games often bites the Wolverines in the butt, and it did in this game. Too often, McDaniel or Nkamhoua would get the ball and not give it up. Granted, they are Michigan’s two leading scorers, but they didn’t make Florida’s defense work especially hard on many possessions.

-There was almost no off-ball movement on these possessions, aside from the occasional pin-down screen or movement off a dribble handoff. No one cuts when McDaniel comes off a screen or when Nkamhoua tries to back down his defender in the mid-post. It’s like the Wolverines were running the default ball screen offense in NBA 2K; there was next to no cutting, very few off-ball screens or flare screens to set up a three-point shot, and almost every player without the ball in their hands was stagnant, making the Wolverines incredibly easy to guard.

-The same five guys — McDaniel, Nimari Burnett, Terrance Williams II, Nkamhoua and Reed — played the entirety of both overtime periods. I don’t necessarily disagree with that decision based on game flow; Will Tschetter had an off-game, and Tray Jackson and Jaelin Llewellyn both weren’t great in limited minutes. That said, mixing in one of those guys for even two minutes could have given the Wolverines some fresh legs. I think a lack of energy was a big reason for the lack of ball movement.

There has to be more creativity

What we saw in the Florida loss is a microcosm of the offensive issues we’ve seen from Michigan in tight games the last few seasons; it’s way too predictable, there’s an over-reliance on ball screens, and there’s almost no off-ball movement. It looks like there’s a lack of a second or third option on most of these play calls, as the guys that don’t have the ball simply stand there and don’t move around much.

Overall, the offense late in games is straight up boring; it’s almost always a ball screen with McDaniel and Reed, or a post-up possession by Nkamhoua. That’s what it’s been all season long.

The lack of creativity on these sets is painfully evident — it’s like watching a pickup game at LA Fitness after every player had been playing for 90 minutes, with guys deferring to the most basic set in basketball with no off-ball movement.

That lack of creativity is on the coaching staff.

I can’t be the only viewer that wants the Wolverines to get more creative late in these games, especially when all the attention is focused on McDaniel. I want to see offensive coordinator Howard Eisley and the rest of the staff call something different — set up a flare screen for Williams, who has been money on catch-and-shoot threes this season. Have players cut off a Nkamhoua or Reed post-up, or simply set up secondary actions so McDaniel can find an open shooter in the corner when he can’t get to the rim.

It doesn’t have to be drastic, but something has to change with this late-game offense. The Wolverines are running out of time to figure things out — they have one more non-conference game before getting into the thick of conference play.

The blueprint is out on the Wolverines late in games; stop McDaniel off the pick-and-roll, slow down Nkamhoua in the mid-post and watch the offense crumble. It’s not too late to make a change, but to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, the Wolverines have to make their late-game offense less predictable.