Ball movement, 3-point shooting sparks Michigan past Rutgers

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 11:37pm

Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis scored the game's first points with a three.

Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis scored the game's first points with a three. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

PISCATAWAY — Despite his team’s 21-2 record and top-10 national ranking, Michigan coach John Beilein has cast a frustrated figure for much of the last month. Wins and losses alike have been met with an unsatisfied air — a feeling that the Wolverines have failed to maximize the potential displayed in their 19-0 start.

So when Beilein entered the Rutgers Athletic Center media room 20 minutes after Michigan’s bland 77-65 win against the Big Ten’s perennial doormat Tuesday night, the expectation was for more of the same. But before the questions even began, Beilein sat down and offered a different assessment.

“We were really good today,” he said. “I really loved just about everything about our game.”

The reason for his change in tune? One simple line in the box score that read, 11-of-23.

That, of course, was the Wolverines’ stat line from 3-point range Tuesday night. Just last year — when Michigan ranked 4th in the Big Ten with a 37.3 shooting percentage from deep — that would have been impressive, but nothing out of the ordinary. This season, it’s a revelation — just the second time in 10 tries since the New Year that the Wolverines have shot 40 percent from three.

For a Michigan team that now ranks 10th in the conference with a 31.5 shooting percentage from deep, Friday’s 8-for-33 performance in a loss at Iowa was rock bottom, as it couldn’t move the ball into open looks. Instead, it repeatedly forced up contested shots in a desperate attempt to claw back into the game before falling to a 15-point defeat.

“Just keep practicing… and hopefully, we’ll make some shots,” Beilein said after that game. “We’ve seen some of our guys go out there and really have good shooting days. Today, we didn’t have great shooting days.”

Rather than spending the three days between games preparing for Rutgers as they typically would, the Wolverines did exactly that, turning introspective in hopes of solving their 3-point woes.

Against the Scarlet Knights, it was immediately clear that the approach had paid off. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis opened the game with a three on Michigan’s first possession. A few minutes later, junior guard Zavier Simpson found the freshman forward again wide open in the corner. The next time the Wolverines tried from deep, it was redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews springing sophomore Jordan Poole open at the top of the arc. By the time Michigan finally missed a 3-pointer, 7:22 into the game, it led 18-6.

“I think at the very beginning, the ball movement was great,” Beilein said. “We just moved it really well.”

Each time Rutgers threatened to put a serious dent in that lead, Michigan’s ball movement provided it with a much-needed buffer. When the Scarlet Knights made their biggest run of the night — an 8-0 stretch to cut it to single digits with two minutes to play in the first half — it was again Matthews assisting Poole to snap Michigan’s dry spell.

“We’re definitely all unselfish players and we play for the team,” Brazdeikis said. “We put the team first. Definitely today, that was an emphasis and we were moving the ball really well.”

Five minutes into the second half — the next time the lead shrunk to single digits — Simpson drove into the lane, dishing it to Poole beyond the arc. Again, he found bottom.

Ten feet away, Beilein looked on emotionless — the best in-game approval he will ever offer. Two possessions later, when Poole’s isolation tendency returned, the coach reverted to the emotions that he displayed so often last week in Iowa City, dropping his head into his hands before turning to assistant coach DeAndre Haynes with a befuddled look.

“It still stuck a few times and we’re working on that,” Beilein said. “Because we do have some talent that can get their own shot. But sometimes, the more you dribble it, the more everybody gets into the gap and you’re not gonna be able to get your stuff.”

Tuesday night, though, that look was rarely on display. And when a Rutgers’ miss with 1:39 left sent the crowd toward the exit and drew chants of, “Let’s Go Blue,” Beilein finally cracked a smile.

For the first time in weeks, it came because of his offense.