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Inside the Numbers: Michigan basketball’s Big 3

Wisconsin was able to do something only one other team had done this year on their way to Saturday’s upset victory.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this year, let’s say about five or six games ago, I presented the idea in our staff-wide Slack. Michigan was still undefeated but had been relying on big second-half efforts to provide breathing room.

Those games followed a general pattern: Michigan would get out to an early lead behind the efforts of either Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis, or Charles Matthews. In the second half, the Wolverines would pull away as another of the aforementioned three would finally find their stroke.

The idea I tossed around was the only way to beat Michigan would be to hold at least two of Michigan’s “Big 3” in check.

The article was put on the back burner because while it was easy to prove the hypothesis that getting two of their three going would help Michigan win, there was no evidence that holding two of three in check would actually work — an overmatched Providence team did it earlier in the year.

Well, after Saturday, we have that evidence. We’re still operating in a small sample-size theater, but I think the numbers are pretty interesting.

Before Saturday, Brazdeikis, Matthews and Poole had scored in single digits two, five and five times, respectively. As mentioned earlier, the only time two of the three had failed to reach double digits in the same game was against a below-average Providence team in mid-November.

This was the first time this happened since conference play began Dec. 1 against Purdue. Here’s a breakdown of the games where one or more of Michigan’s top three scorers have failed to reach double digits:

As you can see, besides a couple outliers, the Wolverines’ trio have done a good job of covering for each other when one can’t find a shot. Prior to the last two games against Northwestern and Wisconsin, the “Big 3” had averaged 40.6 points per game in these select contests. That’s just over a point per game off their total season average, which sits at 41.8.

Now, what’s concerning is that in back to back games, the Michigan “Big 3” have struggled to get going. Part of that is due to a lack of touches as Isaiah Livers, Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske have taken on more work within the offense. Matthews, Poole and Brazdeikis have all failed to reach 15 points in back-to-back contests — the first time all season. As a unit, they’re averaging 25 points per game over the two contests, more than 16 fewer than they’d been averaging on the year and 15 fewer than previous games where one of them had struggled.

Of course, John Beilein’s offense is going to stress balance, and you have seen Teske and Simpson average roughly 17 points respectively in the last two contests. Teske, for the first time in his career, dropped 15+ in back to back games. Simpson is on a four-game stretch of double digit efforts, matching his totals from the first four games.

Going forward, you want to see Michigan’s three leading scorers get back into a groove without affecting the rhythm of Teske and Simpson. Ideally, Michigan is able to run the offense with all five guys on the floor as threats. This balance resembles the 2013 national runner-up team that was able to attack all mismatches when it ran Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all together. This team has similar offensive firepower, and it’s imperative to get that going again.

Wisconsin has shown other teams the blueprint: hold down Michigan’s best scorers and the Wolverines may not have enough bottom-roster depth to compensate, even when the role players step up.

Most teams won’t have the defensive acumen of Wisconsin or a player like Ethan Happ. However, to reach the expectations this team has set for itself, they’re going to have to beat teams that do.