With the clock running down and Maryland facing a 10-point deficit, Anthony Cowan grabbed Zavier Simpson. The whistle blew.
Cowan was playing hack-a-Simpson, assuming that the junior guard — a notoriously poor free-throw shooter — would miss, giving the Terrapins an extra possession.
But Simpson no longer fits his reputation. In Big Ten play, Simpson has hit 22-of-28 from the charity stripe — a 76 percent clip. And against Maryland, he continued the trend, sinking both free throws to extend the Michigan men’s basketball team’s lead.
Cowan didn’t try his luck again.
“It’s a long way from last year, where it was hard for him to find the bucket and the free-throw line,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “Now he’s one of our late-game — I think everybody — nobody minds Zavier getting the ball.”
It goes beyond just Simpson. Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and junior center Jon Teske — 58 and 57 percent shooters in their careers, respectively — are both up to 63 percent in conference play.
Teske, Matthews and Simpson are the Wolverines’ three best defenders as well — making them vital to have on the court down the stretch. But in prior months, Michigan coach John Beilein faced the choice of removing them and losing their defense or keeping them and giving opponents the opportunity to take advantage. In that sense, the teamwide improvement has paid dividends in more ways than one.
Last season — in which the Wolverines shot just 66 percent — proved by far the worst free-throw shooting team in Beilein’s tenure. Because of that, Beilein decided from the beginning that foul shots needed a renewed focus.
“We’re practicing it more,” Beilein said at the team’s media day on Oct. 22. “It’s been a thing that we’ve taken for granted because we had so many good foul shooters that we didn’t practice it as much. We probably practice it 500 percent more knowing that they need to do that.”
Players who miss from the stripe during games — from key members of the rotation to walk-ons — stay after practice the next day to shoot 15 to 20 free throws.
Beilein has also stressed the mental side of things. He’s introduced the team to meditation and visualization exercises. The night before a game, he instructs players to picture themselves getting to the line and draining the shot so that during the actual thing, they’ll have the confidence to make it happen. These new practices, along with more experience, have paid off. Michigan is shooting 75 percent from the stripe in Big Ten play.
“A lot of hard work has really helped with it,” Beilein said. “When you get on the big stage and you’ve gotta make those free throws and you’re all alone out there, you sorta get used to it.”
That’s certainly been true of Simpson. Early on in the season, he wouldn’t indulge reporters’ questions about his foul shooting, viewing them as slights to his ability. But with his numbers now, the only inquiries he has to face are about his improvement — and about how his free throws have helped down the stretch, not hurt.
“I feel like it was all mental,” Simpson said after the game against the Terrapins. “ … Not being a great free throw shooter last year, you can capitalize your weaknesses and that’s what I did. Hopefully, it can continue, but at the same time, I’m gonna keep working.”
Last year, teams knew they could foul Michigan at the end of games, daring the Wolverines to make or break the contest from the line.
But this year, a more common sight is what happened on Saturday: The opposing team tries, but Michigan calmly sinks each free throw.
Then, the dare goes back the other way: Do they want to risk trying it again?
Often, they don’t.