Ann Arbor — Michigan has made a habit of kicking into a higher gear when February rolls around.
Whether the Wolverines will be able to find another level, though, much will depend on their offense.
“I hope we can do what we've been doing the last couple years because it could really be a good year if we can do that,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Monday. “That's the focus in practice right now is to try and find some holes in everybody's game that we're trying to improve a little bit and then strengthen the areas we think they're strong in.”
That includes redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews playing with confidence, shooting on the way up and not the way down, and exploding to the rim rather than hanging in the air and trying to avoid a charge.
For junior center Jon Teske, it’s playing with better balance around the rim, an issue that has caused him to miss close-range baskets.
For junior guard Zavier Simpson and sophomore guard Jordan Poole, it’s to stop taking unnecessarily deep 3-pointers from NBA range when they have room to move closer to the college line.
And for freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, it’s simply finding the right plays and actions to get him open in games.
With all that said, the Wolverines’ offense appears to be trending in the right direction after a rough five-game stretch where Michigan posted two of its least efficient performances — averaging 0.82 points per possession at Wisconsin and Iowa — and failed to crack 60 points three times.
Michigan pulled out of the rough patch by averaging a solid 1.17 points per possession and using a balanced attack to drop 77 points on Rutgers. And despite racking up only 61 points against Wisconsin, there was still a positive takeaway.
“We got more open shots in that game than we did in Madison. We just had a bunch not go really,” Beilein said. “I thought Iggy took some better shots. Zavier only took one 3 and I thought that was going to go in.
“It was just one of those games where we couldn't make a shot. I thought in Madison it had a lot to do with their defense. I thought this time we just missed them. We missed some pretty good open looks and made some tough ones.”
Michigan’s defense, which ranks No. 2 in the nation, has been stifling and sound all season long, with the exception of a few bad stretches and the loss at Iowa.
According to Teske, getting the offense to return to its formidable November form requires a simple fix. The Wolverines have to stop missing their clean looks.
“We’ve just got to knock down our open shots or when we're open shoot the ball with confidence,” Teske said. “We've got to be able to pass the ball and hit the guy in the open hands and just be able to knock down shots. Those are going to fall. Also, just try to get out in transition. I think that's when we're at our best when we get out and get layups, dunks, transition 3s. But really just knocking down open shots."
That’ll be easier said than done with several defensive obstacles looming.
Heading into Tuesday’s game at Penn State, six of Michigan’s remaining seven games will come against teams who rank in the top 40 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Four of those contests will feature two defenses that rank in the top 26: Michigan State (No. 9) and Maryland (No. 26).
The one outlier? A Minnesota team that held Michigan to 59 points at Crisler Center in a game that ended on a buzzer-beater last month.
“If we continue to improve,” Beilein said, “we've got a chance to be in that championship hunt for the Big Ten.”
Beilein said in recent weeks he was looking for more offense from sophomore guard Eli Brooks. And entering play Tuesday, the search continued.
Brooks was held scoreless on five shot attempts the last four games and had scored only six points in the past 10 games.
“He just doesn't want to force anything,” Teske said. “I mean, that's with me, too. I'm not trying to force anything and just find the open shot. He's pressing a little bit, but he knows that he's capable of knocking down shots. He's got to go do that and show that to coach."
Beilein said despite the lack of offensive punch, Brooks still makes an impact with his defense, vision and assist numbers in limited minutes.
Beilein added Brooks hit six 3-pointers in the team’s scrimmage on Sunday and he reminds Brooks he used to average roughly 30 points a game in high school.
“I would love to see him be able to come off a ball screen and rise up and shoot it in,” Beilein said. “That's not his personality right now and we're trying to get that out of him. Make plays for others but we need him to shoot the ball, too, because a lot of when he's at point guard or off guard it just helps if he's more of a threat.
“But if he's not comfortable with that, we'll take his minutes. For him to get a lot more minutes, we want him to shoot it more and obviously he's wanting to make them more, too.”