The Michigan Wolverines still have some work to do get back on the NCAA Tournament bubble. In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology for ESPN, the Wolverines are “considered” for the tournament, with more than a few teams ahead of them before they can slide onto the “Last Four In” line.
It might be too late for the Wolverines to make a tournament push, and it doesn’t help they have a tough stretch to close the year, including three challenging road games. All of those would be Quad 1 wins, and their tournament resume improves dramatically if they can beat Rutgers (Feb. 23), Illinois (March 2) and Indiana (March 5).
In order to win those games, Michigan has to play to its strengths and use some of its few advantages against three teams locked into making the tournament.
One of the Wolverines’ biggest strengths is their size. While this team has struggled rebounding the basketball all season long, the ultra-efficient two-big lineup of Hunter Dickinson and Tarris Reed Jr. has helped earn a few big wins.
We first saw the two-big lineup at Iowa and we’ve seen in spurts since, mostly in the second halves of games. The dominance of this lineup is why they beat Northwestern at home and Michigan State this past weekend. Had it not been for a late game collapse, the two-big lineup could have won them the Indiana game.
Reed Jr. does a great job playing off Dickinson and all the attention opposing defenses give him. He said after the win over MSU that Dickinson has done a good job communicating when the two are on the floor together.
“Hunt’s a true leader,” Reed said. “He’s a big man, he’s been here the longest out of all of us. When he catches the ball, they’re doubling off of him, he’s telling me to cut, he’s telling me to rebound. He’s helping me offensively and defensively.”
When looking at lineup data, we see that the Wolverines are pretty efficient when the two share the floor.
(All stats courtesy of CBB Analytics)
As we can see from the chart below, when Dickinson and Reed Jr. do share the floor, it’s usually mid-way through the second half.
Here’s a more in-depth look at the lineups Michigan has used all year long. Take a look at the lineup that’s third from the bottom in the four factors chart.
It has to be noted it’s an incredibly small sample size of only 21 minutes, but the lineup of Dug McDaniel, Kobe Bufkin, Joey Baker, Reed Jr. and Dickinson — the group that closed the game against Michigan State — might be one of Michigan’s most effective lineups.
That group has a plus-minus of +33, a mark that’s in the 95th percentile of all of college basketball and tied for second behind the usual starting group (+54). They also have an off-the-charts offensive rating (152.4, 99th percentile), have a solid effective field goal percentage (61.4%, 87th) and almost never turn the ball over (4.6% turnover percentage, 99th).
This is a lineup we might see a lot more of, especially if Jett’s injury from Saturday night requires him to miss some time.
The eye test backs it up; these two big men play well together
One of the biggest takeaways from those charts is when Reed Jr. and Dickinson share the floor (54 total minutes), they’re pretty efficient, grab a lot of offensive rebounds and don’t allow as many offensive rebounds (with the Wisconsin loss being the exception).
That all makes sense watching these games; you should win on the boards when you’re effectively playing two centers. Reed Jr. also provides a jolt of energy, usually at the exact time Michigan needs it.
Defenses have gotten so locked in on guarding Dickinson — he’s almost always getting doubled against Big Ten teams in the post. But with the two-big lineup and Dickinson being farther away from the rim, opponents have to account for Reed Jr. while respecting Dickinson’s improved jump shot.
“He shoots it, I’m wedging, I’m getting that rebound, I’m putting it back up,” Reed Jr. said. “He catches it, they come to double, I’m cutting right there, I’m getting a dunk (or an) and-one layup, Just playing off him and knowing he’s our guy on the offensive side.”
Now, the two-big lineup has it’s obvious flaws. Savvy opponents will look to foul Reed Jr., who’s gotten better as a free throw shooter, but still shoots 37.5% from the line. And as much as Dickinson’s jump shot has improved, keeping your All-American center away from the rim for long periods of time doesn’t seem like a sound strategy.
But it works in spurts because it’s different. In a world where 90% of teams run the same offensive sets and there’s not much variance in lineups, the two-big lineup is a throwback grouping that forces opponents to either match it with two bigs of their own or get absolutely destroyed near the rim.
I’m not saying the Wolverines should start the two-big lineup, or even use much more than they already do. Part of the reason it’s so effective is it mostly comes in 4-6 minute bursts, and you sacrifice a lot of three-point shooting and spacing with the pairing.
But with how effective it has been in second halves this season, the Wolverines would be foolish not to use it in every game moving forward. There’s more tape of it for teams to prepare with, but the more Reed Jr. and Dickinson play together, the better the pairing seems to get.
“The big lineup with Tarris and Hunter, they have grown a lot together,” head coach Juwan Howard said after the MSU win. “They’re now getting more and more comfortable playing with one another.”
It’ll be an uphill battle for the Wolverines to make the tournament, and they might already have too many close defeats and Quad 1 losses to even make a push. But if they are going to earn entry into March Madness — which is a big if at this point — the two-big lineup has to continue being used. It’s different, it’s effective, and it leads to winning basketball.