Wolverines hope foul-shooting woes aren’t chronic
Piscataway, N.J. – A blip on the radar or a troubling trend?
Michigan coach John Beilein is hoping it’s the former as the Wolverines, one of the top free-throw shooting teams in the country, struggled at the line in crunch time in Wednesday’s 68-64 nail-biter against Rutgers at Louis Brown Athletic Center.
Michigan entered the game ranked sixth nationally in free-throw percentage at 77.8 percent, but finished 14-for-23 (60.9 percent) against the Scarlet Knights. The subpar performance comes on the heels of Michigan’s worst free-throw performance of the season in last weekend’s overtime loss at Minnesota.
After going 5-for-7 from the stripe in the first half – the two blemishes coming by junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman after he was fouled on a 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds left – the misses piled up in the second half as the Wolverines went 9-for-16 in the second half.
The worrisome part is not just crucial points being left off the scoreboard but who is missing the free throws and when.
Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., one of the top free-throw shooters in the Big Ten, finished 5-for-7 with both his misses coming in the final 1:49 when it was a one-possession game. Senior forward Zak Irvin was 3-for-8 and had as many misses as he did the past three games combined. He had a chance to put Michigan up four with 14 seconds left, but split two free throws make it a three-point game and gave Rutgers a chance to tie it.
“You almost stay away from it,” Beilein said. “We always do pressure ones and we always shoot it, but we tried to do more quantity (Tuesday). We haven't had that situation that much where we had to do it to win a game but it was early. Rahk (Abdur-Rahkman) was shooting 80 percent, Duncan (Robinson) was shooting 90 percent, Derrick (Walton) is shooting 90 percent and all of a sudden they're going 2-for-5.
“That's not helpful to us. But I'm not going to touch it all. We're just going to continue to practice it and put them in situations where they can have success in practice so it transitions to games."
Against Minnesota, the Wolverines shot a season-low 50 percent (9-for-18) on free throws that proved to be their downfall. In the second half of a nip-and-tuck affair, Robinson split free throws when it was a tie game, Walton missed three straight and Irvin missed one that would’ve evened it with 5:49 to play.
Then in overtime, Abdur-Rahkman had a chance to put Michigan ahead, but his two attempts rattled out.
The 18 missed free throws over the past two contests is the most during a two-game span this season. It’s also more missed attempts than Michigan had in five games combined (15) prior to the Minnesota loss.
“Honestly I think we're thinking too much about it, myself personally, and I know for a fact a couple other guys are,” said Walton, who is shooting 86.7 percent from the free-throw line.
“You want to make them so bad that you kind of press it opposed to just shooting and let it be what it is. Usually we're a great foul shooting team and it's very uncharacteristic. I don't expect it to continue going forward.”
Plan of attack
Rutgers entered Wednesday’s game leading the Big Ten in offensive rebounds at 15.1 per game, which has been a soft spot for Michigan. Yet, the Wolverines limited the Scarlet Knights to nine, with six coming from guard Mike Williams and none from forward Deshawn Freeman, who averages a team-high three offensive boards a game.
Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson also held Rutgers’ 7-footers C.J. Gettys and Shaquille Doorson to one offensive rebound and four total rebounds.
“I thought they did a great job. That was a point of emphasis going into the game,” Irvin said of Wagner and Wilson. “We had to control the boards and I thought they did a good job with that. I don’t think they got too many (offensive rebounds). ... D.J. and Moe on the offensive end, they had eight combined which is great to see, especially D.J. having six.”
Heading into the contest, Wilson had just two offensive rebounds in the last five games and was averaging two rebounds per game. Wilson finished with a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Wagner had eight points and six rebounds. Michigan also finished with 12 offensive rebounds, its second-highest total in Big Ten play.
“Moe has been getting six rebounds a game for us. That’s a huge number, but D.J. had two,” Beilein said. “We told him about it and now he just had six, so you just got to go there and he did.”
Wednesday’s win over Rutgers gave Beilein his 500th win at the Division I level, a milestone that came as a complete surprise.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever be a Division I coach ever,” Beilein said. “When I didn’t get the Colgate job a long, long time ago, I said, ‘This is it.’ That was my only shot. I’m really pleased that it’s all worked out at Division I.
“I’ve been really lucky. Canisius gave me a break, a huge break and so did Richmond and so did West Virginia and Michigan. Really been blessed with good staff, good coaches and really good players.”
Beilein has 207 wins at Michigan and needs three more victories to top Johnny Orr’s mark of 209 and become the winningest coach in program history.