Juwan Howard not worried about UM's free-throw woes: 'We'll work on it'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Nothing in life is free. That includes free throws.

The Wolverines can attest to that as they’ve come up empty plenty of times at the line. Over the first two games, they’ve missed at least 12 free throws in each contest and clanked a total of 27 attempts during the first week of the season.

Entering play Monday, No. 4 Michigan is averaging 31 trips to the line per game (12th in the nation) but is among the worst in the country at converting at the stripe, shooting a woeful 56.5% (No. 322 out of 350 Division I teams). Taking a lot and missing a lot of free throws often isn’t a recipe for success.

Hunter Dickinson has missed three free throws in each of Michigan's first two games.

Given it’s a small sample size, coach Juwan Howard isn’t ready to panic about the alarming numbers and his team’s poor performance at the stripe heading into Tuesday night’s Gavitt Games matchup against Seton Hall.

“No, I am not,” Howard said when asked if he was concerned with the free-throw shooting. “We will continue to keep working on it.”

When asked if he could put his finger on anything that could be attributing to the early struggles, whether mental or mechanical, Howard reiterated his players will continue to work at it in practice.

Under former coach John Beilein, Michigan traditionally was a sound free-throw shooting team and, at times, among the best in the nation. That trait carried over to Howard’s teams, which shot 71.7% during his first year in 2019-20 and 76.9% last season, with the latter mark ranking No. 27 in the country.

Yet, that hasn’t been the case in the early going this year. In the season-opener against Buffalo, Michigan shot 18-for-30 on free throws, with several misses coming on the front end of one-and-ones when the Bulls were making their second-half push.

Then in Saturday’s Coaches vs. Racism game against Prairie View A&M in Washington, D.C., the Wolverines didn’t fare any better as they finished 17-for-32. When you factor in the exhibition against Wayne State when they made 16 of 24 free throws, the percentages have gotten worse with each passing game.

More: Michigan men's hoops (2-0) climbs in latest AP top 25 rankings

“I would say (free throws) would probably be the biggest area we can improve on, especially for myself,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said after the Buffalo game. “That’s something that we’re going to work on, but it’s Game 1. We’re not too worried about it. I feel like that’s the one thing we can definitely improve on and that’s something I’m definitely going to work on.”

The issue isn’t limited to just one or two players. The four Wolverines who have made the most trips to the line — grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones (6-for-12), sophomore forward Terrance Williams II (6-for-9), freshman forward Moussa Diabate (3-for-7) and Dickinson (5-for-11) — are all shooting under 70%.

Jones has missed multiple free throws in every contest, including the exhibition. Dickinson has missed three free throws in both regular-season games, something he did just three times in 28 games last year. Williams and Diabate missed a combined five attempts against Buffalo.

“(Diabate) and I are going to have a serious sit-down over his foul shooting because that's now come into play against Wayne State and came into play (against Buffalo),” assistant coach Phil Martelli said on WTKA’s “The Michigan Insider” last week.

“He has a tendency to rush on his foul shot. He has to reach to the rim. Juwan gives me that responsibility, so Moussa and I know that we have to have a real heart-to-heart about his foul shooting. We can't take him off the court because of that being a liability.”

Even looking past the team’s biggest offenders, much of the rest of the roster has had trouble cashing in at the stripe. Seniors Brandon Johns Jr. and Adrien Nunez have both missed a couple free throws. Freshmen Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins have split a pair. The only Wolverine who has been reliable at the line so far is fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks, who has made all four of his attempts.

Whether this becomes a troubling trend throughout the season remains to be seen. But like Howard, Dickinson thinks the Wolverines will be able to pull out of their free-throw funk.

“I think we have a team of workers and a team of guys who love getting better,” Dickinson said, “so I feel that’s something we’ll improve on, for sure.”

Jackson on the mend

Sophomore guard Zeb Jackson has been sidelined with an undisclosed illness and has yet to dress for any of Michigan’s games, including the exhibition. Howard has described Jackson’s status as “day to day” and didn’t provide an update on his status on Monday.

“Unfortunately, in this game of basketball, sometimes injuries happen,” Howard said. “You hope that it's not you but when it does happen, what you have to do now is stay in tune, which he has been, and try to keep a positive attitude because at times it can be very frustrating when you're injured and you're not out there practicing or playing in a game.”

When asked for clarification whether Jackson was dealing with an injury or illness, Howard replied: “We're looking forward to having Zeb back soon.”

A Michigan spokesperson said Jackson has been out with a non-COVID illness but didn’t offer any specifics.

It’s unclear how long Jackson has been sick. When asked if Jackson has practiced at all over the past week, Howard reiterated he’s looking forward to him returning soon.

“In due time, he'll have an opportunity to come back healthy and provide whatever he can to help the team,” Howard said. “I know and his teammates know that we truly miss him.”

Seton Hall at Michigan

►Tip-off: 9 Tuesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

►TV/radio: FS1/950

►Records: Seton Hall 2-0; No. 4 Michigan 2-0

►Outlook: This is the first meeting between the teams since Dec. 23, 1989 and Michigan holds a 2-0 advantage in the all-time series. … Michigan is 2-1 in the Gavitt Games, with a loss to Xavier (2015) and wins over Villanova (2018) and Creighton (2019). … Eight players are averaging at least eight points for Seton Hall, led by guard Myles Cale (13 points) and forward Tyrese Samuel (13 points, 10 rebounds).


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins