LOS ANGELES, Calif. — There are two lines of thinking when a good team plays badly.
One is that it’s a problem to be taken seriously, because any sort of slump in the postseason can easily spell doom for a team.
The Michigan men’s basketball team, after shooting under 40 percent from the floor and 28 percent from deep in two games last weekend, has taken the second train of thought. The Wolverines believe their play, and their shooting in particular, will regress to the mean eventually.
“We didn’t make them last week, but we’ve got to stay encouraged and still have that confidence to take and make open shots,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “That’s what we’ve been doing, we haven’t really changed anything.”
“We’ve been winning,” added sophomore guard Zavier Simpson. “We’re on a good winning streak. We want to continue what we’ve been doing, and hopefully the shots fall. We want to make sure everybody stays confident, and when (the shots) fall, that’s when it’s a whole different ballgame.”
For Michigan, that’s the positive side of things. Even with lackluster shooting numbers, it's still playing basketball because of freshman guard Jordan Poole’s game-winning shot against Houston.
And to a man, it seems the Wolverines are thinking positively about their next opportunity to break out of their slump against Texas A&M on Thursday.
“Zavier takes pride in that,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “He was like, ‘Dang, we’re up two and we’re not even playing our best right now,’ at halftime. And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, X. We’ve just gotta come out and play better.’ And that’s why I said I was really looking forward to this game to see what happened over the week and if we’re gonna hit that shot or not.”
The concerning side to Michigan’s shooting struggles last week is that there isn’t a strategic change that can be made to fix it. The Wolverines got good shots against Houston and Montana, but they weren’t falling.
Shooting is variable, and it’s contagious. When a good shot doesn’t go in, there isn’t much more to do but shrug your shoulders and shoot it again the next time. Michigan coach John Beilein said as much Wednesday.
“I see us just going to play on,” Beilein said. “We were fortunate to be here, and we played the best basketball we could play. It wasn't as good as some of our other games, but that just happens. Everybody is always asking for reasons why. There is no reason why. It just happens. They're 19-year-old kids. It just happens.”
So what do you do in practice the next week to improve you shooting? You shoot.
At least with that, according to Beilein, there is a silver lining.
“Yesterday, we did our shooting drills, and it was the highest numbers we’ve ever gotten as a team as far as our shooting drill,” Beilein said at his press conference Tuesday. “It was just a five-minute shooting drill, but the lowest guy had 55 threes in five minutes, and that was the lowest guy. And the standard used to be 50 until we became good at it, and now it’s 60. Of our 12 players, 10 got 60.”
And there is the confidence again. Every Michigan player and coach says that the shooting woes won’t continue. After all, this is the same team whose offense lit up Madison Square Garden to win the Big Ten Tournament.
But they’d better be right. The margin for error is much less this time of year. The Wolverines snuck into the Sweet Sixteen despite struggling to score.
If that performance is repeated this weekend, they might not be so fortunate.