Offensive struggles becoming a troubling trend
It seems like years ago that a scorched-earth offensive juggernaut went shot for shot with Purdue on its home court.
That night, the Michigan men’s basketball team shot 60 percent from the field, 56 percent from 3-point range and scored 1.35 points per possession against the No. 3 team in the country. It became the first team all season to score 1.3 points per possession in a game and lose. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was hitting fadeaway threes and sweeping layups en route to a 26-point outburst — causing coach John Beilein to insinuate a Derrick Walton-esque leap could be in store.
Offensive turbulence appeared to be a thing of the past.
It seems like years ago, because the two weeks before and the two weeks since have featured offensive struggles the likes of which Michigan has rarely experienced under Beilein.
Putting the flame-throwing showcase at Mackey Arena aside, the Wolverines have averaged 61 points per game on 41-percent shooting in the other six games, and done so with a consistently troubling malaise.
“I just think we need to have a little bit more of a sense of urgency,” Abdur-Rahkman said after Tuesday night’s 61-52 loss at Northwestern. “I think we didn’t have that. Also, it’s getting late in the season … a lot of people are adjusting to the way people are playing. We’ve just got to make adjustments as well.”
Each game has its built-in excuse to sugarcoat the struggles. The Maryland game came just two days after the high point of the season, a road victory against Michigan State. The Wolverines went to Lincoln facing a desperate Nebraska team, in a hostile environment, in the midst of a grueling stretch of four games in nine days — a “schedule loss.” Rutgers, for its gruesome offensive deficiencies, was a strong defensive side that came into the game intending to muck up offensive flow and slow down tempo at all costs.
Northwestern — both times — unveiled a unique matchup zone that presented few clear solutions.
“I don’t know if we had a week prep (for the zone) we could make a big difference,” Beilein said. “It is really good.”
Added Abdur-Rahkman: “They knew what we were running, things like that — we just played them, like a week ago. So they’re familiar with our players and our scout and stuff like that.”
Individually, each performance is excusable. Together, they paint a troubling picture.
But what exactly are those adjustments Abdur-Rahkman alluded to?
For one, starting to make shots would help. Though the past month has displayed struggles, the overall team shooting outlook (47.1 percent from the field and 36 percent from three on the season) is about on par with other slightly above average Beilein teams. There is a prevailing sentiment that the shooting struggles are a blip on the radar, that a Beilein-coached team will find its stroke — and that very well may be.
But unlike past teams, there are few guys on this team who are drastically underperforming their expected shooting numbers.
Abdur-Rahkman is currently matching his career-best 3-point percentage (37.8) and taking them at a much higher clip. Wagner, too, is right around his career-high in 3-point percentage (39.6) and shooting a solid 53.7 percent from the field.
The two main dropoffs come from the sharp decline in the shooting of fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, who has somewhat inexplicably gone from 42 percent to 35 percent on 3-pointers in the span of a year. The other comes from the natural dropoff from an elite scoring point guard in Derrick Walton Jr. to the more defense-focused Zavier Simpson, an unavoidable decline. The sophomore has made just four of his last 21 3-point attempts after starting the year 14-for-31.
“Of course, it sucks,” Wagner said. “You play basketball to make shots, it’s fun to win. You practice so much, and missing shots is not fun.”
One possible solution may be an attempt to re-emphasize redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews. Matthews has scored just 12.3 points on 43 percent from the field and 26 percent from three in the last seven games. And while those numbers don’t jump out as overtly destructive, they’re discouraging for a guy who had begun to evolve into the team’s go-to scorer, a role still patiently waiting for an apt suitor.
A perfomance becomes a problem. A problem becomes a trend. A trend becomes a fatal flaw. Right now, Michigan is ranked 57th in adjusted offensive efficiency, which comes dangerously close to the lowest ranking of the Beilein era — 67th in 2015.
“We’re responsible for (the struggles),” Wagner said. “We’ve got to make shots, it’s on us.”