Michigan basketball's 3-point defense torched again as Rutgers catches fire

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Piscataway, N.J. — The depleted roster certainly hurt.

Down two key frontcourt reserves and its backup point guard, Michigan had to restructure its rotation with freshman guard Frankie Collins, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. all missing Tuesday’s trip to Rutgers due to medical reasons.

But what cut deeper is what happened behind the 3-point line at Jersey Mike’s Arena and where a familiar scene unfolded: The opponent got hot in a hurry.

Rutgers guard Geo Baker was 3-of-7 from 3-point range Tuesday night against Michigan. Rutgers drained 11 3s in the game.

“I think guys are having too good of nights out there,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said after Michigan lost to Rutgers, 75-67, for the first time in program history.

“We’re putting ourselves behind. When teams shoot above 50% from 3, it's hard to beat any team. It doesn't matter who you're playing. For us, guarding the 3-point line and continuing to defend is our biggest problem right now.”

It proved to be an issue from the start against the Scarlet Knights, who entered the game ranked No. 291 in the nation in 3-point shooting (30.6%) and No. 319 in made 3s per game (5.5).

Rutgers drained its first four long-range attempts and opened 5-for-6 from deep — with varying degrees of difficulty — in the first eight minutes. By the time the final horn sounded, the Scarlet Knights shot 47.8% from beyond the arc (11-for-23) and tied the team’s mark for most made 3s in a Big Ten game.

“They hit some bombs. Some deep, deep 3s, and they hit them early,” coach Juwan Howard said. “Of course, that generated some confidence within those players as well as got the fans into it. There were also times where we did have a defensive breakdown to allow some open 3s.”

What unfolded was similar to what happened in last week’s loss at Central Florida. The Wolverines allowed the opponent to hit some easy shots and get comfortable, which led to difficult shots seeming easier. That showed when Ron Harper Jr. beat the shot clock with a ridiculous 3-pointer during Rutgers’ scorching start.

Seeing all the deep balls fall made the rim look bigger for other Scarlet Knights like Caleb McConnell, who drained a pair of 3-pointers in the second half after making just three in the previous 12 games. Blown defensive coverages played a role, and there was also tough luck as Rutgers hit some contested heaves.

Prior to UCF and Rutgers, opponents were only averaging roughly six made 3-pointers a game and shooting 25% from deep against Michigan. But in the past two contests, Michigan’s perimeter defense has taken a step back as the Knights and Scarlet Knights have lit up the Wolverines to the tune of 23 3-pointers on 53.5% shooting.

“It's just small details that we're messing up,” Dickinson said. “Helping from the same side corner is one big thing that's hurting us right now. We're just so young and it’s hard on the young guys to learn so much so fast. We have a complicated system. For some guys who aren't used to it, it can be a lot and we’re trying to get them to learn as much as they can.”

On the flip side, the Wolverines saw another common theme play out — they couldn’t overcome a poor outside shooting night.

In almost every loss — the UCF game being the lone exception — Michigan was ice-cold from beyond the arc. Tuesday was no different. The Wolverines shot 20% from deep (3-for-15) and missed several open looks against the Scarlet Knights, with freshman forward Caleb Houstan (1-for-8) accounting for much of that percentage.

Fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks said the Wolverines did a good job of playing through Dickinson, but they failed to capitalize on their long-range opportunities which could've made things easier for the big man.

With the 3s not dropping, Brooks felt the Wolverines let the Scarlet Knights "off the hook" when they were in foul trouble. He thought the team should’ve done a better job of attacking and getting to the free-throw line when it was in the bonus with 9:04 remaining.

Instead, Michigan hoisted five more 3-point attempts down the stretch and allowed the outcome to be decided by its outside shooting, like it has far too often.

In the losses to North Carolina, Seton Hall, Minnesota and Arizona, Michigan shot a combined 19% from 3-point range (12-for-63). But when nights like that happen, Dickinson said he does what he can to keep “breathing life” into his teammates.

“Our shooters have got to shoot no matter if they're making or missing because we need them to keep opening the floor for us,” Dickinson said. “I think it's just something that takes time. College is hard. High Division I is hard. It's not easy to score. It's an adjustment and a learning curve for some guys, but I think toward the end of the season we'll be fine.”

Howard remains optimistic about what Michigan can accomplish this season and vowed improvement. He said while outsiders may think the Wolverines have no leadership, no shooting and no defense, he still sees “so many great things of what this team is going to become.”

But for that to happen, they’ll need to shake some of their troubling trends or else things will get worse, especially with a tough three-game stretch ahead against Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois.

“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be,” Dickinson said. “I feel like we played really hard out there and (the result) is not what we wanted. But there are some things that we could take with us, some learning experiences to get us ready for Michigan State and hopefully turn this thing around.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins