Two days after Caleb Houstan’s 1-for-9 shooting performance against Seton Hall on Nov. 16, Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli had two words for reporters:
According to Martelli, at some point, a shooter as talented as the freshman wing would find his stroke and go 8-for-9.
But for much of the next two months, nobody paid. More often than not, Houstan’s shot simply wouldn’t fall; over the last five games, the situation reached its lowest point. Entering Tuesday’s game against Maryland, Houstan had shot just 26% over the Wolverines’ last five outings and a pitiful 2-for-21 from 3-point range.
When addressing reporters Monday, Martelli struck a similar chord:
“We expect that Caleb tomorrow night will go 9-for-9 from three. And everybody will say ‘well, it’s over. It’s gone.’ ”
Houstan didn’t go 8-for-9 or 9-for-9 against the Terrapins, but from the tip, it was clear that tonight would be different. His first shot of the night found twine and he didn’t look back, tallying 16 points while going 6-for-7 from the floor as Michigan eased to its first victory in a month.
“It was great to see that Caleb had the game that he had,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “For any player, when you’re out there competing (from) the first play and then the ball hits your hands and then your first shot goes in you feel … (a) sigh of relief. You feel good about yourself and you feel like it’s gonna be a good night.”
For the first time since a two-game stretch in early December, Houstan’s confidence parlayed into results. Over the past five games, Houstan was often relegated to just a perimeter option, and when the 3-pointers weren’t falling, he failed to make an impact.
Tuesday, Houstan generated offense both inside and on the perimeter. He drove to the basket with poise, converting an and-one layup early on and a give-and-go with sophomore center Hunter Dickinson later in the first half. He even showed off previously unseen tricks, at one point coming off a screen, using a head fake to get past his man and finishing with a left-handed hook shot.
“I’m just trying to stay aggressive,” Houstan said. “Obviously, the past couple games my shots weren’t falling. So just trying to get to the basket for easy baskets, easy looks. … I tried to do that a little more this game.”
The confidence that comes with driving to the basket and getting easy looks is what Houstan has been missing for the past two months. He knew he needed to change something.
Tuesday, Houstan went through a light workout after the day’s classes and came out for warmups well before any of his teammates, allowing him to get more shots up. He also watched clips of himself missing shots and visualized them going in. He wants to see the ball go in the hoop as much as he can.
“I really just do visualization of me just making shots,” Houstan said. “Just like getting repetitive stuff of me just seeing the ball go in the rim.”
Entering the season, Houstan was expected to shoulder a hefty offensive burden, and Howard acknowledged that in December. He was supposed to fill a starting role and be the team’s top perimeter threat. Tuesday, Houstan said he didn’t feel like this expectation added any pressure, but it was likely weighing on him one way or another.
“It’s easy to get down on yourself, especially when you know you’re better than what you’re playing,” Dickinson said. “I’ve experienced the same things. It’s up and downs with basketball. You have your highs and your lows and just try to stay as consistent as possible.”
Through all of his struggles, Houstan’s teammates and coaches have continued to preach that they have the utmost confidence in him. Howard and his coaching staff always told him to keep shooting. Players knew he was better, knew that the player they’ve compared to Klay Thompson would show up at some point.
“When you go through a shooting slump, some would say there’s a lot of season to be played, a lot of games left,” Howard said. “You’ll have your opportunity again.”
And when the opportunity came again on Tuesday, Houstan finally capitalized. The sharpshooter that his teammates described finally re-emerged. Somebody finally paid.
“That’s a great player right there,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “I’m glad that he’s my teammate, because I’d hate to play against him.”