Wolverines' raw shooting turns to gun-shyness
New York — Theoretically, it shouldn't happen.
A team that shoots as well as Michigan does should never, ever lack confidence shooting the basketball.
But the Wolverines have seen that confidence dip at times, most recently in a narrow victory over Rutgers on Wednesday.
"You know, people miss shots and your confidence should never waver, but sometimes it does," Aubrey Dawkins said. "That's just basketball and the nature of life, things aren't going your way sometimes.
"You question if I should shoot the next one, but that can't happen."
That can't happen.
Those three words were repeated by multiple Wolverines following the 68-57 victory over Rutgers, which hasn't won a game in the Big Ten, but was a couple missed open looks from stunning the Wolverines earlier in the week.
Michigan got off to a horrid start shooting, especially from its bread-and-butter land, 3-point range. It missed its first five 3s, and nine of its first 11.
And, all of a sudden, sharp-shooters like Duncan Robinson, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. were hesitating with open looks.
"Everyone on this team has the confidence that they think their next shot is going to go in," Irvin said. "Everyone was a little hesitant, and we can't let that happen. We've got a lot of great shooters on this team.
"We just can't let us missing shots dictate the whole game."
Michigan comes into Saturday's game against Penn State at Madison Square Garden third in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (48.8) and second in 3-point percentage (41.7), but shot just 35.7 percent and 33.3 percent on 3s in the first half against Rutgers.
That made things way too close for comfort for a Michigan team that doesn't have a surplus of quality wins, and can't afford slipups against far-inferior teams in the Big Ten.
It wasn't just that Michigan got hesitant after so many early shots.
The Wolverines let the shooting slumps have a ripple effect on defense; Rutgers shot 50 percent in the first half.
Coach John Beilein said Friday afternoon, after reviewing film, that Michigan didn't set good screens, and he also suggested there might be some fatigue setting in. He called out D.J. Wilson and Kameron Chatman as guys who have to be able to come off the bench and provide quality minutes to provide some in-game rest. Wilson hasn't played in the last two games, while Chatman had a brief cameo against Rutgers, and it went pretty poorly.
"I think that we wear that on both sides," Beilein said after the Rutgers game. "In those situations, you have to manufacture energy, because when you're missing shots, it can take a lot out of you, right? So it takes out of your defense.
"You just can't put your head down and wallow in it. You've gotta continue to throw energy to the team and everything. We've gotta work at some of those areas."
Eventually, Michigan got it together against Rutgers, just like it did in a similarly uninspiring performance against Minnesota earlier in the month.
That matters, a lot, for a team that, to be fair, looks most days like it belongs back in the NCAA Tournament.
But that berth isn't just handed out, willy-nilly, and the Wolverines know their margin for error is slim, especially with a very tough back end of the schedule, that includes games next week against Indiana and Michigan State, followed by rematches with Purdue, Maryland and Iowa.
There probably won't be time to lose a lick of confidence in those games, and still hope to win.
"The game is so much more than making shots," Walton said. "We can't keep having performances like this."
Beilein said he hopes the environment of Madison Square Garden keeps the Wolverines from having a repeat performance, especially on offense, though it should be noted neither team was able to shoot around Friday, with the Knicks playing a home game against the Phoenix Suns.
Achy breaky time
Finding those guys to give the starters some quality, in-game rest is super essential as long as Caris LeVert continues to be out.
LeVert has missed the last seven games, and it doesn't appear he'll be ready to return against Penn State on Saturday.
"Caris was able to do more yesterday than the day before," Beilein said Friday. "It was good to see him out there running a little bit.
"When you see him in warm-ups, that's when you'll know he's going to play."
That's all Beilein would say about LeVert, who's out with a lower-left leg injury.
He continues to be cautious with putting unrealistic expectations on a LeVert return date, or tip off opposing coaches when his star will be back.
The basketball team, which usually flies right home after its games, is staying to watch the hockey game before it returns home Saturday night. Michigan-Penn State basketball play at noon, then the schools' hockey teams play at 7, after a quick turnaround of playing surfaces at Madison Square Garden.
... Slumping Penn State star Shep Garner will be a game-time decision because of an ankle injury, coach Pat Chambers told reporters Thursday. In their meeting Jan. 2, Michigan held Garner to six points on 2-of-10 shooting, and he's shot just 22.9 percent over his last five games.
Michigan vs. Penn State
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Madison Square Garden, New York
Records: Michigan 16-5, 6-2 Big Ten; Penn State 11-10, 2-6
Outlook: Michigan won the first meeting, in dominating fashion, 79-56 at Crisler Center on Jan. 2. That was the first game Caris LeVert has missed, and he hasn't returned yet. ... Brandon Taylor leads Penn State, with 16.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg. ... The Michigan and Penn State hockey teams will play at the Garden on Saturday night.