DES MOINES, Iowa — Jordan Poole walked to the bench. DeAndre Haynes had a message.
In the midst of a first half that defined the two-sidedness of Poole’s game and his season, the sophomore guard had just driven the lane, shot-faked, then thrown up a floater with no chance of hitting. Earlier, he hit two 3-pointers with hands in his face, one of them while falling to the floor, helping Michigan to an early lead against Florida. Now, that lead was in jeopardy.
“Hey, take a deep breath. Breathe,” Haynes, an assistant coach, recalled telling Poole. “Just slow down, take the easy shots that they give you. When they close out hard, just drive past, to either take a shot or make somebody else better.”
So, when the Wolverines came out in the second half, Poole looked for Jon Teske down low, found the right angle on an entry pass and picked up an assist. Next time down, with the lane open, he drove, winding his body and finishing through contact. Then, he swished a stepback three.
Poole, all told, scored 19 points, shot 4-of-9 from 3-point range and buoyed Michigan to a 64-49 win over the Gators and its third-straight Sweet Sixteen. Last year, it was Poole who sent them there. The questions about the shot against Houston flowed towards Poole on Saturday. Inevitably, they always will. Jordan Poole will never escape it.
One day after the season, Poole was working with Isaiah Livers in the gym and stopped to take a picture. Livers made fun, saying something to the effect of, “You made the big shots, Mr. Big Shots.” Poole snarled.
“I don’t wanna be known for only just the shot,” Poole said. “Know what I’m saying? Being able to put all the hard work that I have in, being able to start, get the opportunity. Last year I think I only played 11 minutes, something like that, in that game.”
On Saturday, Poole played 33 minutes. He took some bad shots, a whole lot more good shots, played strong defense and helped his team win. The shot against Houston was great. But performances like Saturday’s are what Poole cares about.
He has put in extra time, over the summer and during the season, as coaches have stressed time and time again to keep things simple, let the game come to him. Those clichés, for Poole, represent consistency.
Just last week, on an equally big stage against Michigan State, Poole tried to force up shots and went 3-for-7 from beyond the arc, missing a potential game-tying shot. Consistency is an elusive ideal — and it’s one Poole has worked towards in the good times and bad.
“He just doesn’t show up, enjoy the bright lights,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “He works for the bright lights.”
Poole will always be recognized for the shot. It will be on every highlight, every pregame video at Crisler Center, every YouTube compilation of March buzzer-beaters.
Poole is just fine with that. But the rest is what matters.
“Obviously it’s an amazing opportunity to make a 3-point shot, and advance us to the Sweet Sixteen as a freshmen,” Poole said. “But I’ve worked so hard and have so much more to my game that I’m not able to show. I am able to show — to be in a position like this, spending days, countless hours and summers in the gym is just something that I feel like I work on.”
Games like Saturday, where Poole leads his team to its biggest win of the season, staying alive and getting one step closer to the ultimate goal of a national title, are the reward for those hours, that time.
He’s had games like this during the regular season, of course, and proved himself beyond the shot before. But this is on a bigger stage, with brighter lights and bigger stakes. To shed that image, at least as much as history will allow, these are the types of games Poole must have.
After the reporters had cleared out of Michigan’s locker room and John Beilein was ready to hop on a plane, the grace of home beckoning, he leaned in close with a final point to make about Poole and about that goal.
“We’re all working really hard with him to become a basketball player,” Beilein told The Daily. “A really good basketball player. Not just play basketball. Become a basketball player.”
On Saturday, that’s what Poole was. He’d like you to remember it.