How a fingertip, a late rotation and a great player contributed to Michigan's frantic comeback over KU
So much goes on in a basketball game that is hard to pick up on first glance.
With that in mind, I had a college basketball coach go through video with me — video of the final 2:30 of regulation during KU's 87-85 overtime loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16. At the time, KU led, 72-62, with the ball, which according to Ken Pomeroy, gave KU a 99.4-percent chance of winning the game.
With help from the coach's eyes, here's some of what went on in the final minutes that you might not have realized.
2:30 left: KU 72, Michigan 62
In transition, KU is a team that likes to have its point guard get to the elbows in transition before attacking the paint. Then, KU has players on each wing for the point guard to pass to.
Elijah Johnson finds trouble when attacking the elbow.
On this play, he's supposed to look at Kevin Young, which he does for a second. Ben McLemore cuts down the middle and is actually open for a split-second, but at the time, Michigan's Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway are on Johnson's arms.
The next step in Johnson's natural progression is to find Jeff Withey, which is the correct read. Johnson just doesn't see Michigan's Glenn Robinson III, who elevates to tip the pass.
It's a dangerous play by Robinson, though.
If Robinson misses that, he takes himself completely out of the play. Withey could follow by taking one dribble ahead, which would force Mitch McGary to step up to help. That would open up a pass to Kevin Young, who most likely would have had an opening for a dunk.
Instead, Robinson's fingertip saves Michigan.
2:12 left: KU 72, Michigan 64
Michigan is pressing at this point, but the Wolverines are not trapping KU. This shows that UM, more than anything, is trying to get KU to speed up its tempo rather than turn it over in the backcourt.
Johnson takes a while before trying to get upcourt, but when he does make that effort, Burke sticks out his right arm across Johnson's body to go for a steal that completely stops Johnson's momentum.
Johnson should have been more aware of the shot clock, but it's hard for him to make up for time when he's jammed in the backcourt. Obviously, officiating depends on how the entire game has been called, and in this contest, both teams were allowed to play aggressively with just 29 combined fouls in an overtime game. Keep in mind also that Michigan is one of the best teams in the nation when it comes to avoiding defensive whistles.
Whether it was a foul or not, Johnson simply can't get by Burke, which results in the turnover.
2:00 left: KU 72, Michigan 64
We get to a high ball screen in this play, and this is a tough play for KU to defend with its personnel.
Here's why: KU can't have Withey hard hedge (or come out hard on a ball screen to cover Burke on the perimeter) because it's not going to be easy for him, as a 7-footer, to extend that far defensively.
What KU does instead is sits Withey back about 15 feet on the ball screen, which also is what NBA teams do with their shot-blockers.
This way of defending screens, called "soft hedge" or "pro style," forces Burke to either take a contested mid-range jumper or try to drive and finish over Withey.
The only KU player that "soft hedges" defensively is Withey, and the reason for that is twofold: 1. He might not have the athletic ability to get out in space to hedge or trap ball screens; 2. Putting him that far on the perimeter takes Withey out of position to block shots and rebound, which are his best skills.
Michigan is smart with its high ball screen, running it on the same side of the floor of its best perimeter shooter (No. 11, Nik Stauskas). That's one less KU defender that can help, as if McLemore rotates on the drive, Burke makes an easy pass to the corner for an open three from a 44-percent three-point shooter.
KU plays excellent defense on this first ball screen. Withey soft hedges and does a nice job here, keeping his feet even with the three-point line while maintaining quality spacing against Burke.
Burke realizes KU has defended the ball screen well, and because of that, he backs up with the dribble.
Though we can't know exactly how Johnson was told to play the ball screen by KU's coaches, it's interesting here that he never squares Burke back up to get directly in front of him. Instead, Johnson stays on one side of Burke, which means he's still dependent on Withey to help defend the UM point guard.
Because Johnson isn't truly squared up, the Michigan guard is able to drive.
Still, after a few dribbles, KU has Michigan exactly where it wants it.
Burke is driving into Withey with Johnson trailing him. Burke leaps into the air and has very few options.
KU only needs to do one more thing: rotate its bottom defender, or as you might often hear, "Help the helper."
We don't know KU's specific rotations, but the help defender here would be either Releford or Young. Also notice that Michigan is doing KU a huge favor: Hardaway and Robinson are bunched on the perimeter.
There's almost no chance Burke can make the pass in congestion to Hardaway or Robinson, who are five feet from each other with poor spacing. One person (in this case Young) should be able to guard those two by himself.
If Releford rotates to the weakside big (McGary), KU has this play completely covered.
One thing to consider: Late in the game, sometimes guys can be tentative to help, especially with a lot of shooters on the floor. No one wants to be the guy who has his man make an open three.
Releford appears to be a bit tentative here. Burke gets the pass to McGary, Releford is late on the rotation, and McGary's layup trims the lead to six.
1:27 left: KU 72, Michigan 66
Out of a timeout, Coach says Self calls an effective play — an iso for Releford.
KU cuts Withey underneath, and Michigan's Mitch McGary trails him, which clears out the lane.
McLemore is placed in the weakside corner, as he's KU's best threat to shoot. Just like Michigan's previous play above, KU will run the play to this side, as it'll be tougher for Michigan to help off of KU's best perimeter shooter.
Johnson tosses to Releford, then rubs against Stauskas, who runs straight into Johnson.
KU gets exactly what it wants: one of its best finishers (Releford) isolated against one of Michigan's worst defenders (Stauskas) with McGary out of the lane.
If Releford would have missed the layup, notice also the McGary rotation left Withey all alone for the offensive rebound.
1:18 left: KU 74, Michigan 66
Releford is now guarding Burke, and it's tough for him to get through the ball screen.
Early ball screens are tougher to defend not only because Burke is in a full sprint, but also because it's tough for Releford to know it's coming. It's also more difficult for Releford, at 6 foot 5, to try to squeeze his way over the top to get through.
McGary sets a solid screen, but it still appears Releford could have done a better job of going over the top.
Then, for whatever reason, Releford isn't quick to recover on Burke, and though we don't know if KU was switching all screens at that time, it's unlikely because Withey was still on the floor.
With all that said, Burke still has to hit an NBA three over a 7-footer.
He does. The lead is down to five.
00:45 left: KU 74, Michigan 69
This is another well-executed play for KU after a timeout.
Johnson attacks towards McLemore, which forces Hardaway to help. Right after this, Releford sets a solid flare screen on Hardaway.
Michigan's Caris LeVert steps over to help, but he goes a step too far. McLemore drives baseline but can't finish the short shot in the lane.
00:38 left: KU 74, Michigan 69
The biggest breakdown here for KU is its transition defense.
The Jayhawks not only allow a quick open three to Hardaway (that he misses), but they also are not set defensively. It's much tougher for defensive players to rebound when they aren't in a set position.
When the shot falls off the rim, KU's players scramble but can't grab hold of the 50-50 ball. Keep in mind that KU also had the possession arrow, meaning if the Jayhawks simply fell on the ball like a football fumble, they would have maintained possession.
Robinson comes out of the scrum with it, then puts in a layup over Withey, who was trying to get the loose ball a second earlier.
00:19 left: KU 76, Michigan 71
It's hard to fault KU's defense on this Burke drive for a layup.
The main objective in these scenarios — from a coaching perspective — is to not foul or give up a three. And, Burke is pretty hard to stop one-on-one in this situation.
Burke attacks the rim, and he does so slightly out of control. With this time and score, if Burke is grazed at all by a defender, it's likely to bring a foul call, which would give Michigan a chance to score with the clock stopped.
Burke drives by Johnson for the quick two, but KU avoids a foul and still is ahead three.
00:09 left: KU 76, Michigan 73
After Johnson misses the front end of a one-and-one, this is Michigan's final chance.
You can hear Self clearly on the TV broadcast screaming to his team before Johnson's free throw: "Switch five. No threes."
Self has taken Withey out of the game in favor of Naadir Tharpe, which gives the coach a defensive lineup that is able to switch every ball screen. The intent is to not allow a good look from three.
Without a timeout, Michigan sets two screens to try to confuse KU. Notice that Johnson is doing everything in his power to still try to get through McGary to get back to Burke, which includes barreling right into the big man.
As you see, Young is a second late to switch out to Burke.
Though Young recovers, Burke still is able to get a clean look.
Here's what Self said after that game: "I'll look back on that one, what were we doing, not to switch up. ... That was not that difficult a switch, and don't give up a three, and we let him come off naked and shoot it. It was from 27 to 30 feet, but still it was a great play by a big‑time player."
Self's assessment on the switch is correct.
Young could have jumped out and switched it harder. For many coaches, an often-repeated phrase when switching on ball screens is, "Switching only works if you switch aggressively."
In this case, Young needed to aggressively jump out, almost like a hedge, and switch it hard.
It's still not hard to know what Young might have been thinking in this situation. With Burke out around 30 feet, Young could have thought, "Well, if this guy takes a shot behind the hash-mark, I don't know that's the shot we're going to lose to."
In the end, it's just another example of Burke making a play. By sagging off a bit, Young is playing the percentages, as Michigan's hopes are hanging on a 28-foot shot with a hand in the face.
Though Young could have done more to prevent the three-pointer by switching it a little bit harder, this isn't a horrific mistake — and probably is not even as severe of a miscue as the missed weakside rotation that KU had earlier.
The final takeaway? Though KU could have won the game by making one of a few critical plays, this also was a lot about Burke making big plays at the right times.
After KU held him scoreless in the first half, Burke found a way to make the Jayhawks pay for numerous small mistakes down the stretch — mistakes that might not have cost KU the game against any other guard in America.