In what can only be described as a smashing success of a season, Juwan Howard and company far exceeded their preseason expectations. Projected to finish anywhere from fifth to ninth in the Big Ten, the Wolverines won the regular-season conference title with relative ease. From an analytical perspective, some things about this Michigan team come as no surprise (high-quality defense, great shooting, lots of usage by Hunter Dickinson, etc.) while others were quite stunning (the overall balance, the low free throw rate, and spectacular paint defense).
On the offensive end of the court, replacing the two highest usage players from a season ago in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske seemed daunting in the pre-season. How did Michigan respond? They shot lights out from three (34 percent in ‘19-’20 to 38.1 percent in ‘20-’21) and threw down 26 percent more dunks (from 61 to 77). Unsurprisingly, Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner led the team in ORTG. However, Chaundee Brown ended the season third on the team in ORTG despite having the second-lowest usage of any rotation player. No one was able to match Zavier Simpson’s ridiculous 43.4 assist rate, but this year’s backcourt split the load more evenly with Mike Smith at 28.6, Franz Wagner at 17.4, and Eli Brooks at 17.3. I would be remiss not to mention Hunter Dickinson’s stellar freshmen campaign. The big man led the team in points, rebounds, and blocks just to name a few. Only Austin Davis shot a higher percentage from the field. Nationally, the Wolverines finished with the 9th best adjusted offensive efficiency, a moderate jump up from 21st last year.
Defensively, Franz Wagner shined. He is easily my defensive player of the year despite what the awards shows may have said. Wagner led the team in steals and captained the ninth-rated defensive team per Bart Torvik. The Wolverines finished the season fifth nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed and third in two-point defense. The combination of stellar perimeter defense by Brown, Wagner, and Brooks along with the inside presence of Dickinson and Davis proved to be quite formidable. Torvik data states that the national average per game in defensive efficiency is 101.5. The Wolverines only played four games this season below that threshold and three of them resulted in wins (the season-opening win vs. Bowling Green, the thrilling win at Ohio St, the loss at Michigan St, and the Big Ten Tournament win against Maryland). Michigan also excelled at avoiding foul trouble, especially in the backcourt. Livers, Smith, and Brooks all ended the season at under two fouls per 40 minutes.
All of these statistics may be making you reminisce fondly on the season that was. Or it may be making you grimace at what could have been if any of the last eight shots fell against UCLA. So just how bad was the season-ender against the Bruins? The answer may surprise you: not nearly as bad as you think. Statistically, it was the fourth best game of the season defensively by Michigan (only beaten by the win at Purdue, the evisceration of Luka Garza and Iowa at home, and the Big Ten clinching win vs. Michigan St). They held UCLA to 3-13 shooting from three and had their best rebounding game of the tournament. Michigan was done in by untimely turnovers, poor shooting, and a crawling pace of play. With their second-worst three-point shooting night of the season, third-worst points per possession, and fourth-worst turnover rate all happening in one game, it’s tough to claw out a victory.
Torvik also puts out a game score for each team in every game that essentially aggregates all of the statistics from each team. This year’s Wolverines put up perfect scores against Wisconsin, Maryland, and Purdue along with near-perfect scores against Minnesota (the first time), Iowa, Indiana, the win vs. Michigan St, and Florida St. The obvious clunkers happened against Oakland, Minnesota (the second time), Illinois, and the loss at Michigan St. For those wondering, the UCLA game was only slightly below average and very close to the win against Bowling Green and the BTT loss to Ohio St.
All things considered, the UCLA game was only a debacle on one end of the floor. Despite feeling like a let-down, the Wolverines managed to put themselves in a position to win an ugly game. The chips just didn’t fall the right way. You can’t let one game define the whole season as almost everything went right for Juwan Howard this season. Time will tell where the program goes from here but I’m very optimistic.