Wolverines’ free-throw woes: It’s all in the head

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach John Beilein hasn’t faced a plaguing free-throw problem in quite some time.

But after the Wolverines shot 42.9 percent (12-for-28) and missed a season-high 16 attempts from the line in Saturday’s 76-73 overtime win over Minnesota at Crisler Center, Beilein is still searching for answers.

“We have a positive meditation they do,” Beilein said. “I didn’t think we were going to have to resort to that, but we’re ready for anything right now — a hypnotist, anything we can do right now.

“I think my Le Moyne team, we had a bunch of big guys in 1983 or ’84 and it was the same thing. So, it’s been a good 30-something years since we’ve had this issue.”

Beilein said he usually tells his players during the game to think about their mother when they shoot free throws because “she’s usually a wonderful, kind woman that would relax them.” However, he deviated from that strategy against the Gophers.

“I didn’t do that today,” he said. “I’ll have to do it more — think about the ones you love.”

At this stage of the season, Beilein said it’s not a mechanical flaw but a mental hurdle that’s isolated to the team's biggest offenders: sophomore guard Zavier Simpson and redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews. According to Beilein, the duo has been shooting a higher volume of free throws at practice and excelling, with Matthews making 90 of 100 and Simpson 75 of 100 in a recent practice.

Matthews finished 5-for-12 from the line and missed six straight free throws to start the second half, while Simpson bricked both of his attempts in overtime. For the season, Simpson is shooting 47.7 percent (21-for-44) and Matthews 53.5 percent (53-for-99) on free throws. As a team, Michigan is shooting 64.2 percent, the lowest mark during Beilein's 11 seasons with the Wolverines.

However, Matthews and Simpson weren’t the only culprits on Saturday. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was 3-for-7 — lowlighted by two misses that could've sealed the victory with 18 seconds left in regulation — and junior center Moritz Wagner, sophomore center Jon Teske and freshman forward Isaiah Livers each came up empty once.

In total, 15 of the 16 misses came after the first half — 12 in the second half and three in overtime.

“You get up there to the line and people think too much,” said Abdur-Rahkman, an 80-percent free-throw shooter. “You got to clear your head. We literally do this every day and guys shoot good percentages in practice, so it should translate to the game. But we still have a couple guys have a mental block — even myself. I think I had one today.

“When you miss two free throws it’s basically like you’re turning the ball over and you don’t get that possession. It’s just tough.”

Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson echoed Beilein, and said there’s nothing wrong with anyone’s form and nothing is broken. Rather, it’s all between the ears.

“Any time you get to the line and come away empty-handed I think that can be a little of a blow to the momentum, but I thought we actually handled it pretty well,” said Robinson, who made his lone free throw attempt and is shooting a team-high 92.6 percent. “Some guys ultimately stepped up and did make some free throws. Ham made the one at the end and Charles made at least one or two down the stretch, which we’ll take.

“We just got to learn and grow from it. I know we’ll tighten up those areas and it’ll happen in time.”

Switching it up

Michigan has mainly played man-to-man defense this season but switched to a zone defense with 12 minutes left in the second half in an effort to combat Minnesota's dribble penetration.

According to Beilein, the decision came from assistant coach Luke Yaklich, the team's de facto defensive coordinator.

“We felt when you get a guy like (Nate) Mason and (Isaiah) Washington, they were 15-for-22 (from the field) at that time and I think one of them was a 3 maybe. They were making tough 2s,” Beilein said. “We said the only way that could possibly stop this is change what we’re doing. We work on it every other day in case we get in a situation. I’m glad to listen to Luke and I think it was a factor in us winning.”

Wagner said he felt going to a zone was a game-changer and did just enough to slow down Minnesota.

“They were hitting tough shots and they kept hitting tough shots even against the zone,” he said. “But you got to give them something to think about because their point guards were just killing us. Our gap defense wasn’t great and our rebounding was pretty good. In the zone, we felt pretty confident in it and it worked out.”

Slam dunks

Robinson was whistled for traveling with eight seconds left in regulation after being trapped near the sideline in front of Minnesota's bench. The call drew plenty of ire on social media and eventually led to Mason’s tying 3-pointer that forced overtime.

“It was kind of a funky play,” Robinson said. “There was a lot of contact there. I don’t know if they were trying to intentionally foul or trap or what. But like I said, a lot of contact and I probably shuffled my feet but who knows.”

Beilein didn’t have a clear look and said he wasn't sure what happened on the play.

“There’s a cylinder that when you’re pivoting they can’t be in your cylinder,” Beilein said. “If he walked I’m sure it must’ve been blatant for the official to call it. If it was not a walk, then that’s really a bad call. The officials had a tough game and I thought overall they did a great job.”

… Saturday marked Abdur-Rahkman’s 100th career start, making him the 23rd Wolverine to reach the milestone.