Ann Arbor — For much of the night, and particularly in the waning moments of Michigan’s game against Minnesota on Tuesday night, John Beilein didn’t like what he saw.
But in the end, all that really mattered was what he heard, after Charles Matthews picked up a loose ball along the baseline, took one dribble and released a high-arching shot over the Gophers’ Jordan Murphy as time expired.
“I trust my ears,” Michigan's head coach explained later. I saw the ball leave his hand and I heard a buzzer go off. And that’s usually a good sign.”
It was, eventually, though obviously the best sign was that the ball actually went through the hoop on a night where that was hardly commonplace for the fifth-ranked Wolverines.
And after a lengthy review to confirm Matthews had released it prior to the Crisler Center shot clock expired, the officials made their ruling. The basket counted, the crowd erupted once more, and Michigan — coming off its first loss of the season Saturday at Wisconsin — had escaped, 59-57, despite blowing a double-digit lead in the final 5 minutes of regulation.
“That could’ve gone the other way,” Beilein said. “I mean, that would’ve been a devastating loss.”
Instead, it was a fortunate win, though when a reporter referenced an “ugly” victory in the postgame media scrum, Matthews furrowed his brow and noted he’s “not a huge fan” of that description. A win is a win in the Big Ten, even when they look like this.
Or sound like this, as Beilein surveyed the stat sheet and rattled off some of the unpleasant numbers Tuesday night. Michigan shot 33.9 percent from the field, went just 3-for-22 from the three-point line, missed eight of 22 free throws, and managed just seven assists all game — only two in the second half.
“We usually have one or two of these games a year where I come in and tell you how blessed we are,” to do all that, Beilein said, “and still win.”
So, yes, they’ll count their blessings and then go watch the film and cringe again at what they see. Michigan's offense is stuck in a rut right now, just as the road is getting rough. They’re 11th in the Big Ten in scoring, they’re a mediocre three-point shooting team at the moment, and the free-throw shooting remains a liability.
The good news is the defense remains a constant, or “an anchor for us,” as Beilein put it Tuesday. But the offense that looked so impressive early in the season — and at various times since — has become a bit of a drag, too. And that seems to be weighing on the players.
Sweating it out
“It’s very big, to survive a game like this, after we just lost one,” Matthews said. “But I told the team, and Zavier (Simpson) told us as well, we’ve got to loosen up. We’re playing kind of tense out there. … We still gotta be out there playing with smiles on our face.”
A few days after its least efficient offensive game in more than two years, the Wolverines came out ice cold again Tuesday, missing 17 of their first 20 shots from the field, including nine of 10 3-point attempts. Fortunately for Michigan, center Jon Teske went 5-for-5 in the first half, because the rest of his teammates were a combined 4-for-26.
Simply put, the Wolverines are struggling to adjust to the way teams have adjusted to them defensively. The ball-screen actions aren’t producing as many easy baskets or wide-open threes because opponents aren’t helping off the wings. They’re also daring Simpson to prove that Northwestern game where he hit five 3-pointers wasn’t a fluke.
Coupled with some poor shot selection and decision-making off the dribble, all of that is leading to far too many uncomfortable possessions for the Wolverines.
“The ball’s not moving,” Beilein grumbled.
The players aren’t, either, at times. Michigan’s coach sounded a bit exasperated talking about his team’s poor transition game of late “because we’re jogging up the court — we don’t sprint, we don’t run.”
That was particularly galling on a night like this. Richard Pitino’s team is not a stellar defensive unit, and the Gophers have been among the nation’s worst at defending in transition this season. Yet Michigan managed just 14 points off Minnesota’s 16 turnovers Tuesday, and only four fast-break baskets all night.
A touch off
Matthews had one of those in the first half. But he had just one other field goal the rest of the game, continuing a frustrating trend as his mid-range game seems to have abandoned him in Big Ten play.
“Hey, man, just stay the course,” he said, when asked how he’s handling the recent struggles. “Keep my head up, never be a cancer to the team. If I feel like I’m not getting shots or whatnot, I don’t complain about that.”
Nor did he complain that the final shot was drawn up for Brazdeikis, the freshman who was coming off a scoreless outing at Wisconsin himself. He’d been aggressive all night, and while his shots weren’t falling, he was getting to the line, where he made 9-of-11 free throws.
Matthews was alone in the corner as the clock ran down and the freshman drove to the basket. But he wasn’t really anticipating a pass.
"He's like a bull in a china shop when he's going to the rim," Matthews laughed. "He ain't looking to kick out.”
Yet when Brazdeikis had his shot blocked, and the ball was tipped to Matthews, he was ready.
“It was ironic that I did get the shot,” he admitted.
And it was a relief that it went in, knowing that one loss didn’t turn into two and one ugly night ended on a pretty good note, giving everyone reason to smile.
“I hope so,” Matthews said. “I hope so. Winning always helps. So let’s hope this brings some positive energy.”