Freshman wing Jett Howard stood poised, toeing the 3-point line, waiting for a pass from sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin. Swinging the ball around the arc, it found Howard’s hands in shooting position. Letting the ball fly, and sinking the 3-pointer through the net, Howard gave the Michigan men’s basketball the lead for the first time against No. 3 Virginia on Tuesday night.
The Wolverines have been abysmal from the 3-point line all season, but against the Cavaliers, they looked like they turned the corner. Howard’s 3-pointer was one of seven for Michigan in the first half against Virginia, en route to a 54% shooting percentage from beyond the arc.
“(When 3-pointers are falling) that’s when we’re at our best because it’s really hard for other teams to guard us,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said. “Obviously, teams are going to try to send two (defenders) at me on occasion and so I trust my guys, when I pass it out. We got guys that can shoot this year, and I think we showed that in the first half.”
This performance marked the most 3-pointers Michigan has made in a first half thus far this season, all while shooting nearly 20% better from deep than any other game. Taking the lead — and guiding the Wolverines to an 11-point advantage at halftime — Howard’s 3-pointer seemed indicative of a change in their offensive capabilities.
And it wasn’t just Howard that was feeling hot. At the half, four Michigan players had connected from behind the 3-point line. Howard was 3-for-5 from deep. Graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn had sunk two 3-pointers and was on track for his biggest offensive contribution of the season. Graduate guard Joey Baker had added valuable minutes and a made 3-pointer.
Then the second half hit.
Coming out of the locker room, the Wolverines needed to keep up the momentum from the 3-point line. Unable to stop the Cavaliers’ guards from scoring down low, and with Dickinson swarmed in the paint every time he touched the ball, Michigan was desperate to find another way to produce points.
Instead of continuing on the hot shooting start that had built an 11-point lead, the Wolverines succumbed to the 3-point shooting pattern they’ve been in all season. Making just one 3-pointer, Michigan went just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc in the second half.
Taking half the amount of shots as the first half was somewhat to be expected, though. Virginia made strategic halftime adjustments to chip away at the Wolverines’ lead, which had largely been created by 3-pointers.
But the extreme drop-off was still staggering. While fewer shots flew through the air, they still generated open looks. With Michigan’s inability to capitalize on a more open lane because of the strong first half 3-point shooting, the offense once again lapsed into a stagnant, out-of-rhythm mess.
“Well, there were some possessions that we got some open looks we just missed,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But trust me they tried to make them.”
That trying culminated in a failed game-winning 3-pointer attempt. Junior guard Terrance Williams II dribbled the ball down the floor with under five seconds left. Williams found Jett on the wing, who after catching the ball, tried to get a shot off at the buzzer through a tangle of defenders’ arms. Instead of launching a beautiful arcing 3-pointer which Jett had displayed so perfectly in the first half, the ball glanced off a defender’s hand and bounced to the floor. Despite trying their hardest, Michigan just couldn’t finish from behind the 3-point line coming out of the break to the final seconds of the game.
With big matchups looming against Kentucky and North Carolina, and an increasingly difficult Big Ten conference schedule, the Wolverines will need to figure themselves out from behind the 3-point line to find success this season.
Shooting a cumulative 32.6% from deep so far this season — a mere 2% greater than last season’s average — Michigan needs to figure out its perimeter offense, and quick. Last year’s team continuously struggled to produce from behind the 3-point line, and it plagued them all season.
Without it, the Wolverines will remain the offense they were in the second half against Virginia — one that couldn’t finish.