Jordan Poole's next challenge

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 3:20am

Freshman guard Jordan Poole has enjoyed growing fame after his buzzer-beating shot to send the Wolverines to the Sweet Sixteen.

Freshman guard Jordan Poole has enjoyed growing fame after his buzzer-beating shot to send the Wolverines to the Sweet Sixteen. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

It doesn’t matter if Jordan Poole never makes another basket. He’s already cemented himself into Michigan basketball lore.

You’ve probably seen the shot a thousand times. Awkwardly released, fully covered, a heave in desperation. Yet it still found nylon, of course.

On Tuesday, Poole told reporters he was poked in the eye during the game, making it feel like he had a film over his pupil. It’s even more reason why the play is one of the most — if not the most — improbable shots of the NCAA Tournament.

Naturally, attention has swarmed Poole. Standing in a water-soaked locker room amidst a blinding artillery of camera lights, he opened his phone to 532 texts a half-an-hour after the buzzer. They came from close friends to middle school teachers to pastors in his hometown Milwaukee.

Poole said his Instagram account has nearly doubled in followers up to roughly 51,000, which makes for the most on the team — something the freshman wasn’t hesitant to point out. Enough people on Twitter even mistook him for Jordan Peele, prompting the Oscar-winning “Get Out” director to fire off an ironic tweet about his jump-shot practice paying off.

Oh, and Poole graced our Sports Monday cover — clearly the most exciting of all.

As of Tuesday, Poole said he has watched the video of the shot at least 500 times. Even at that number, he said it doesn’t get old.

“Every time I watch it,” Poole said, “I keep getting goosebumps and butterflies because it’s just amazing that I hit the shot.

“I just can’t not smile every time I look at it, like, ‘Yo, I actually hit that.’ ”

There’s probably no other Wolverine who would enjoy these circumstances more than Poole. Guys like sophomores Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson, along with even captains Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are relatively reserved when swarms of media gather around after big-time performances.

But that’s not Poole. He was born for the spotlight, relishing almost all the focus that’s come his way.

“I mean, he’s got a lot of confidence, and he’ll tell you about it, too,” Michigan coach John Beilein told reporters on Saturday.

It’s that confidence, or “overdose of swagger” as Beilein said in a TV interview directly after the buzzer-beater, that allowed Poole to drill the shot and create memories for Michigan players and fans that will carry on for years.

But there’s still basketball left to be played. After all, just two wins separate the Wolverines from the Final Four. And that’s where Poole’s quandary comes. His “overdose of swagger” can be exactly that sometimes: an overdose.

Early in Big Ten Play, heat-check 3-pointers, lapses on defense and the occasional failed highlight would irk Beilein, making an already short leash even shorter. As such, Poole played just 10.5 minutes through the season’s first 16 games.

But Poole soon began executing the simpler maneuvers — “winning plays” as Beilein describes them — and was rewarded with more agency and playing time.

And after a sturdy drought, Poole began to take off in late January. Fifteen points against Ohio State. A trio of 3-pointers against Maryland. A posterizing, SportsCenter-top-play dunk against Penn State. Poole was so effective that he began cutting into Charles Matthews’ minutes — the redshirt sophomore guard who led Michigan in scoring during non-conference play.

“(Poole) wasn’t in the rotation because he was learning so much about basketball that he wasn’t helping us,” Beilein said Feb. 20. “He was going to help us win games, but he matured. He got better.”

But then the Big Ten Tournament hit, and Poole’s shot was off. After a 1-for-9 effort in the quarterfinals, freshman forward Isaiah Livers was asked about his roommate’s struggles.

“He’ll pop out of his slump sometime,” Livers said. “He’s a natural scorer.”

“Slump?” Poole interjected from the locker over.

“You’re in a slump right now, bro,” Livers responded.

“Watch tomorrow. I’ll pop out of it.”

But under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, Poole’s attempts simply wouldn’t fall, finishing with just 13 total points over four games.

Last Saturday, however, he still hit the shot. All the pressure and all the talk of a slump has become a distant thought.

But now, the Wolverines need a strong Poole to beat Texas A&M on Thursday. The Aggies thwarted No. 2 seed North Carolina’s interior on Sunday. The Tar Heels failed to open up lanes for slashers and opportunties on the block, shooting an abysmal 6-for-31 from beyond the arc and allowing Texas A&M to advance in emphatic fashion.

To avoid the same fate, Poole and Michigan need to knock down 3-pointers — and efficiently so. That means making those winning plays and avoiding heat checks — despite the greatness of Poole’s last shot.

And to his credit, even through all the hype, new Instagram followers and celebrity shootouts, Poole seems to understand just that.

“(Coach) definitely told me to live in the moment, and take it all in,” Poole said. “But it’s only so long you can do it before you move on to the next game.”