Jordan Poole’s eyes locked on the loose ball headed out of bounds. He grabbed it in the nick of time, took one dribble and pulled the trigger.
A possession later, with 33 seconds remaining, Poole cruised around a screen, looking up to see the hoop 26 feet away and Xavier Tillman much closer. The Michigan State forward threw out his arm, but Poole had already made up his mind. He let fly.
This is what Michigan and its fans expect from Jordan Poole — a clutch, cold-blooded killer with no conscience and no limit to his range.
But the Wolverines lost to the Spartans, 77-70, on Sunday, and Poole’s desperation 3-pointers were merely shots in the dark, aimed at a target that had long since escaped. And Poole was a main reason that the target got away in the first place.
Michigan couldn’t adapt to Michigan State’s unexpected, screen-switching defense and was plagued by questionable shot selection. When it did get good looks down the stretch, it missed them. Those problems affected everyone, but they didn’t obscure one of Poole’s worst performances — before the final minute, he had just nine points on 3-for-10 shooting with two assists, a rebound and four fouls.
Poole has never been a defensive keystone, but the lapses he suffered against the Spartans were uncharacteristic even for him. He struggled against Matt McQuaid on the perimeter, often leaping far past him with overly aggressive closeouts and giving one of the Big Ten’s best shooters wide-open looks.
Three minutes after the Wolverines took their largest lead of the game at 51-45, Poole flew recklessly into McQuaid as he was shooting and sent him to the line. Poole was benched and McQuaid knocked down all three free throws. Just over a minute later, the Spartans took the lead for good.
Michigan coach John Beilein has bemoaned his team’s tendency to spot up for 3-pointers far outside the arc instead of stepping into a more makeable distance. Poole is one of the most frequent offenders — while his range is usually an advantage, it also can turn into a crutch, as he will often force long shots when all else fails.
But no matter how good the look, Poole simply couldn’t find his stroke — before his late outburst, he missed all six of his treys.
“I would love to figure out why Jordan Poole can have the same shots and they don’t go in,” Beilein said on Feb. 21. “ … We just gotta continue to try to get good shots and obviously the better the shot, the more chance it’s gonna go in.”
While Michigan State’s screen-switching, intended to create one-on-one scenarios, deserves its share of credit, one-on-one situations are not impossible to solve. As evidenced by Poole falling back on long 3-pointers, the Wolverines didn’t have the answer on Sunday.
“Our shot selection is better than what it was earlier in the year, but we gotta take good shots all the time,” Beilein said Sunday. “… We have certain habits that are not good for some one-on-one situations.”
A player can be effective without being consistent, consistent without being effective, both or neither. Poole tends to alternate between the first and the latter. This is borne out by, among other things, his 3-point percentages: 40.6 in November, 58.3 in December, 26.2 in January and 32.0 so far this month.
It’s also on display from a game-to-game basis. At Minnesota on Thursday, Poole nailed five threes and scored 22 points, his most of any Big Ten game, appearing to shake out of the doldrums of conference play.
“We know how good we are of a shooting team,” he said then. “Eventually they’re gonna fall like they did in the second half. We’re not really too worried, we go out there and just keep hooping.”
And therein lies the dilemma faced by Michigan. Poole has all the tools to be a go-to scorer for one of the nation’s elite teams. The Wolverines don’t have another player willing to take — and often hit — the same shots Poole puts up. On the flip side, though, his playing style and role as a tough-shot maker inherently limit his consistency.
When those shots are finding the net, it’s an easy trade-off for Michigan. When they’re not, games like Sunday are often the result.
But what’s the difference between the Jordan Poole who torched Williams Arena and the Jordan Poole who has shot just 32 percent from downtown in conference play? The Jordan Poole of the first 39 minutes Sunday vs. the Jordan Poole of the final minute?
Right now, the Wolverines don’t know.