Michigan basketball regains footing by finding new ways to win

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Iowa City, Iowa — Far too often this season, the Wolverines have allowed their 3-point shooting to largely determine the outcome of each game.

It was a common theme heading into Thursday’s contest at Iowa. When Michigan has shot at least 33% from deep or made at least six deep balls in a game, the team was 11-2. When Michigan has shot below that mark or made fewer than six 3-pointers, the team was 2-8.

Iowa forward Filip Rebraca (0) fights for a rebound with Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) during the second half.

But for the second time in the past four games, the Wolverines bucked the trend and found a way to win on the road despite a rough night from beyond the arc.

This time, Michigan used a 28-point outburst from freshman forward Moussa Diabate, made enough free throws down the stretch and slowed down one of the highest-scoring offenses in the nation just enough to pull out an 84-79 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

So why are the Wolverines winning games now, when they aren’t shooting well from outside, as opposed to a month or two ago?

“I think early in the season we weren't as locked in on defense. We were relying on our offense too much, relying on that jump shooting that hasn't been there a lot of the season,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said.

“I think now we're starting to get more stops and start to buy in on the defensive end more, which is helping us not allow them to get on these big runs that were costing us early in the season.”

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Last week against Penn State, Michigan finished 5-for-21 from 3-point range and struggled mightily on offense, but the Wolverines tightened up defensively in the second half, held the Nittany Lions to 23 points after halftime and were able to do just enough to squeeze out a 58-57 win at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Against Iowa, Michigan finished 4-for-20 from beyond the arc — including a woeful 1-for-12 clip in the first half where the Wolverines didn’t even hit the rim on several clean looks — but made up for it by scoring 46 points in the paint and 18 points on free throws.

“When you keep attacking the basket and making tough plays on the inside, whether it's post-ups or layups or if you get fouled…then there are times when the basket starts to open up and you get those open opportunities where it's a dribble kick or whether it's some type of misdirection that leads to an open shot,” coach Juwan Howard said.

“But there are times when they went zone and Eli (Brooks), with the play I drew up, was able to get some of those open threes that we needed. I told the guys at halftime to stay with it. Don't get discouraged, the ball will fall. Just keep shooting the shot.”

Good teams are often able to find a way to win when the outside shots aren’t falling (see Michigan’s losses to Arizona and Purdue, who each shot below 28% from deep) and the Wolverines are finally starting to do just that.

Howard's 'brain fart'

Howard could soon find himself on ESPN’s “SportsCenter Not Top 10 Plays” when he received a technical foul for a bizarre occurrence.

Roughly 90 seconds into the second half, Iowa’s Connor McCaffery bounced a pass that caromed off Diabate’s left leg and across the half-court line. As the ball rolled neared the sidelines and was likely heading out of bounds, Howard scooped it up in front of Michigan’s bench.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard, center, reacts after being called for a technical foul during the first half.

Howard tried to hand the ball to a confused McCaffery as a referee whistled the play dead. Once Howard realized his blunder, he immediately dropped the ball, put his hands up in embarrassment and apologized. After discussing the play, the refs issued a Class B technical foul to Howard. Iowa was awarded one free throw and retained possession.

“I had a brain fart,” Howard explained. “As the ball was rolling, just my instincts — I think I’m being helpful. I go and pick up the ball and I’m thinking, ‘You know what, one of their players knocked it out, and they may have touched it,’ but I wasn’t locked in like I should have (been).

“I knew when I got it, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ That’s when it clicked that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I told the guys in the locker room and also on the court that we coaches make mistakes too. That one is on me.”

What made the situation even stickier was the fact that Howard was hit with a Class A technical foul in the first half for yelling at an official, and Howard admitted he thought the second tech might lead an ejection.

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However, one Class A and one Class B technical foul doesn’t warrant a coach getting tossed, according to the rulebook. A Class A tech is defined as “unsportsmanlike conduct or behavior” while a Class B is “an infraction of the rules that neither involves contact with an opponent nor causes contact with an opponent and falls below the limit of an unsportsmanlike act.”

Howard's two technical fouls led to three Iowa points in the five-point win.

The good and the bad

Shortly before tip-off at Iowa, the program announced that sophomore forward Terrance Williams II was unavailable due to a left ankle sprain.

Howard didn’t say when Williams suffered the injury. Williams participated in pregame warm-ups and was perhaps testing his ankle to see if he’d be good enough to play.

Michigan forward Terrance Williams II (5) shoots around the defense of Indiana forward Miller Kopp (12).

With Williams sidelined, Michigan’s short bench became shorter, and Howard turned to freshman guard Kobe Bufkin, who stepped up and provided a boost. He scored 10 points — his second double-digit scoring effort of the season — and shot 4-for-6 from the field in 16 minutes.

It was the first time in eight games a Michigan reserve scored in double figures. The last to do so was Williams when he finished with 10 points in the Jan. 23 win at Indiana.

“Kobe came in and gave us a big lift. Made some not only tough buckets — the drive to the basket, the (play) I drew up for to finish at the basket with the right hand — but he also did a good job of guarding at the half-court line and was able to get that steal that led to a breakaway dunk,” Howard said. “He just looked very calm.”

Howard wasn’t sure if Williams’ injury will linger and if it’ll impact his status for Sunday’s game at Wisconsin.

“I just pray that these next few days he gets a chance to rest it and get healthy,” Howard said. “We'll see if he's able to go on Sunday.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Michigan at No. 15 Wisconsin

► Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wisconsin

► TV/radio: CBS/950

► Records: Michigan 14-10, 8-6 Big Ten; Wisconsin 20-5, 11-4

► Outlook: Michigan was has won three of its last six meetings in Madison, including last season. The Wolverines are 1-4 against ranked opponents this season, with the lone win coming against then-No. 3 Purdue. …Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and the nation with 8.6 turnovers per game. The Badgers are 10-3 at home, with losses to Providence, Michigan State and Rutgers, and are led by sophomore guard Johnny Davis (20.7 points).