Free throws, Wagner’s foul trouble among UM’s red flags

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Break time is over.

After sitting idle all last week following its Big Ten tournament title run, the real work for Michigan begins.

Michigan’s Zavier Simpson is a 52 percent free-throw shooter. The Wolverines hit just 66 percent of their free throws as a team.

The third-seeded Wolverines will soon pack their bags and head west to Wichita, Kan., to face 14th-seeded Montana on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Before then, Michigan coach John Beilein and his assistants will waste no time prepping and pacing the week to make sure the team will be as sharp as possible, something it wasn’t during its intrasquad scrimmage last Friday.

“That scrimmage you (media) saw was awful,” Beilein said. “We just weren’t good. We let them know that after we reviewed the film and we had a really good practice (Sunday).

“I know it’s natural, but it’s not acceptable. They understand and that’s one thing about this team — when we try to straighten things out, they get straightened out. We’re pretty good at that.”

Despite the lackluster showing, Beilein has no worries the Wolverines will be able to maintain a “hunter” mentality in the tournament because the team puts in the same amount of work and preparation for each opponent, whether it’s Alabama A&M or Michigan State.

“We’re going after it,” Beilein said. “We had a great taste last year of what it’s like to be in the NCAA Tournament. We want to do more.”

And while Michigan is in the midst of a 10-day layoff between games, there’s no shortage of confidence it can carry over the momentum from New York to Wichita and ride it deep into March.

“The three things we do — we play hard, we play smart, we play together. I feel like if we do those things, we have some talent on the team and I feel like we can go pretty far,” sophomore guard Zavier Simpson said. “That’s the goal. We just want to stick together, focus on us and take care of the small things.”

Here are some keys for Michigan heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Shore up free-throw shooting

What has traditionally been a strength for Beilein’s Michigan teams has become its most glaring weakness as the Wolverines rank 326th in the nation in free-throw percentage at 65.9 percent.

Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews and Simpson have been the biggest offenders and late-game dilemmas this season, shooting 56.1 percent and 51.9 percent, respectively. However, they weren’t the only culprits during the Big Ten tournament in New York, where Michigan shot 65.7 percent (69-for-105).

In the opening round against Iowa, the Wolverines missed 14 free throws, with several coming in crunch time. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a 75.7 percent free-throw shooter, clanked the front end of a one-and-one with 28 seconds left that allowed the Hawkeyes to tie the game and force overtime. Then with Michigan up three and 24 seconds left in overtime, sophomore center Jon Teske (55.1 percent) missed two straight free throws that gave Iowa life.

The Wolverines also missed nine free throws against Michigan State in the semifinals — with fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson (88.9 percent) and junior center Moritz Wagner (70 percent) accounting for five of those misses — and 10 against Purdue in the title game, including five straight down the stretch between Abdur-Rahkman and Simpson.

It’s an area Michigan emphasized over the break and a major cause for concern that needs to be remedied. If not, it’s a dangerous dance the could end up biting the Wolverines in any tight game that comes down to the wire.

Keep Wagner out of foul trouble

Foul trouble limited Michigan’s Moritz Wagner (right), shown here during the regular season, in Big Ten tournament games against Iowa and Purdue.

Wagner gives Michigan an advantage over most teams due to his ability to stretch opposing defenses and take opposing big men off the dribble. However, it doesn’t do the Wolverines when he’s any good when he’s not on the floor.

That was the reality in New York when Wagner picked up a foul within the first three minutes of the game against Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue and took an early seat on the bench. He was limited to 16 and 17 minutes against the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers, respectively, which is the least amount of playing time he’s received all season.

“He still has some of the dumbest fouls I’ve ever seen,” Beilein told Big Ten Network after Michigan beat Nebraska in the quarterfinals. “I’ve got to find a German way to tell him fouling is stupid.”

Wagner still managed to score at least 15 points in three of the four tournament games and leads Michigan in scoring at 14.5 points, but he has fouled out three times this season and has been whistled at least four times in six of the past nine contests.

Michigan freshman guard Jordan Poole scored just 13 points in four Big Ten tournament games.

Reopen the Poole

Freshman guard Jordan Poole entered the Big Ten tournament on a tear, scoring 30 points off the bench over the final three-regular season games.

He was never able to find a rhythm and his shooting stroke in New York, though, finishing with 13 points on 5-for-19 shooting (0-for-9 on 3-pointers) over the four-day span.

“Hopefully it’s something that will work itself out, but right now it’s probably just confidence with him,” Beilein said. “I see little areas of growth right now with things with him and then he’ll take steps backwards.”

Beilein added the arc on Poole’s shot has been low as of late and it’s something they’ve been working to correct. If Poole is able to get back on track and provide the type of bench spark he’s capable of, it would be a boon for Michigan and a major headache for opponents.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes in and gets nine straight points in some games in the NCAA Tournament,” Beilein said.


Michigan vs. Montana

Tip-off: 9:50 p.m., Thursday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.

TV/radio: TBS/950 AM

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 28-7, No. 14 seed Montana is 26-7

Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 6 Houston and No. 11 San Diego State on Saturday.