For all the romanticized and clichéd reasons to love sports, seeing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer hit nothing but net has to be near the top of the list. It’s pure anticipation as the shooter pulls up and attempts to carve themselves in the history books of their program.
That’s the exact opportunity junior guard Eli Brooks had in the waning moments on Tuesday against Ohio State.
As each second escaped forever off the clock, the Wolverines were running one final play to tie the game and salvage a win at Crisler Center. Like most late-game scenarios, senior guard Zavier Simpson drove to the basket where he looked to find the open shooter.
There sat Brooks, alone in the corner with his defender desperately trying to get in position to make the stop. The junior caught the ball, rose up as he has done thousands of times and … the ball clanged off the back rim.
Michigan got the look it wanted — a wide-open shot in the corner from one of its best shooters — and just flat out missed it, giving Ohio State a 61-58 win.
So why didn’t it go in?
Not only that, why didn’t all of the Wolverines’ wide-open shots find nylon? Michigan’s shooters consistently found themselves staring at an unobstructed view of the basket in its entirety — a bright green light screaming at the ball handler to let it fly.
This tendency has done nothing but grow under coach Juwan Howard, whose policy since Day One has been: If you’re open, make it rain.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, there’s been a drought in Ann Arbor.
“I know we missed a ton of layups,” Howard said. “We missed a ton of open shots. We just have to finish, it’s that simple. We have to finish games. We have to win games at home. We started off with a pretty good run in the beginning of the season by winning some home games, and our first loss ended up being against Oregon, but we haven’t gotten back to that basketball that we were playing in the beginning of the year.”
Perhaps no one player has struggled more to hit open looks than freshman forward Franz Wagner.
Tuesday, the freshman went just 2-for-8 from 3-point range and 2-for-12 from the floor. That’s good for a 25 percent 3-point percentage — a disappointing mark to say the least.
But the German will be the first to tell you that these misfires are not the result of a mental hurdle needing to be conquered. Often times, pundits and onlookers alike suggest this could be the reason for a shooting drought. If a player is not shooting well, the thinking goes, they just must not be shooting confidently.
“It’s not, ‘I’m goin’ bad, I need to fix my shot,’ ” Wagner said. “I’m confident in my shot, I think you can see that. I’ll continue to do that. We got good shots. A couple shots felt really good, but they didn’t go in. Sometimes my wrist doesn’t flex in the direction I want it to, so that’s why you gotta keep working on it, but it’s not that I’m not confident.”
Rather, it could boil down to slight alterations in how the ball leaves his hands.
After a win against Nebraska on Jan. 28, Wagner — who had just gone 1-for-5 from beyond the arc — assured the public that the coaching staff insisted there was nothing mechanically wrong with his shot. The dang thing just needed to fall in the hoop.
“I talked to the coaches, and we think there’s nothing wrong with my shot,” Wagner said in Lincoln. “We’re just gonna keep working on it, and you can ask anybody. I’m trying to work on it and get my reps up, during the game and just trust it and believe that it’s going in.”
So how does Wagner address this problem in practice?
He does not attempt to correct the trajectory of his previous miss. Say he’s too strong on one of his shots and the ball pops off the back of the rim. Instead of attempting to put less muscle on his shot, Wagner holds fast in his approach, refusing to cave to the pressure that he overcorrect the amount of force put into the shot. The opposite is true for balls that fall just short of the basket.
Given the secrecy that typically surrounds players shooting mechanics, Wagner’s approach may be unique among his teammates.
But for someone shooting under 30 percent from 3-point land while attempting five long-range bombs a game, a change to his shooting mechanics in some form may be on the horizon. Either that, or Wagner’s persistence pays off and open looks may no longer be a gaping hole in Michigan’s offensive inefficiencies.
Because if a team can’t figure out the little things in a wide-open shot over the course of a regulation game, how could it be expected to hit it with the game on the line?