Through two games, the Michigan men’s basketball team has barely had to break a sweat. Although Buffalo and Prairie View A&M aren’t the toughest competition, the Wolverines have cruised to victory — and have looked good doing it.
With 38 points, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson appears ready for a huge encore to his freshman season. Fifth-year guard DeVante’ Jones looks to be the defensive stalwart that was promised with three steals so far. The freshmen seem to be as good as advertised as well, with forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabete playing big minutes and making high-flying plays all over the court.
These opening games are ones Michigan is supposed to win easily, but while the good things add up, even the smallest cracks in a team’s shell early on can lead to catastrophic failures late in the season.
So where are the Wolverines starting to crack?
Look no further than the free throw line.
It’s not difficult to assess Michigan’s performance through two games and identify its obvious weakness. So far, the Wolverines are shooting an atrocious 56.5% from the line, and their key players are responsible. Jones, who shot 86% from the line the last two seasons, is just 6-12 on free throws. Dickinson, who was a respectable 74% last year, is just 5-11.
When Michigan’s opening night matchup with the Bulls got hairy, it was because it couldn’t make its free throws. With the lead down to five, Dickinson and Jones both missed the front end of one-and-ones and kept a window of opportunity open for Buffalo to steal the game.
“That would probably be the biggest area that I think we can improve on, especially for myself,” Dickinson said after the Buffalo game. “That’s something that we’re going to work on. But it’s game one, so we’re not too worried about it.”
The struggles are a little surprising considering where the Wolverines were a year ago. They were 27th in the country in free throw shooting, making 76.9% of their shots.
When asked about if he was concerned with the free throw shooting this week, Michigan coach Juwan Howard echoed Dickinson’s thoughts on the subject.
“No, I am not (concerned),” Howard said, “We will continue to keep working on it.”
And Howard might have reason to brush the issue aside. In the conventional view, the best team’s are those that make their free throws, but recently that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the NCAA.
In 2017, North Carolina was 176th in the country in free throw percentage. They won the national championship. In 2019, Virginia was only a 66% free throw shooting team. They won the national championship. Last season, Baylor shot just 71% on its free throws, and guess what? They won the national championship.
And how have Michigan’s best teams in recent memory fared at the line? Also, not great. And it hasn’t mattered. In 2013, the Wolverines made it all the way to the National Title Game despite being a 70.1% free throw shooting team. In the Wolverines most recent trip to the championship game in 2018, they only shot 66.1% from the line.
What all these teams lacked in free throw shooting, they made up for it in other ways. The Tar Heels, who had several talented bigs on the roster, were the top rebounding team in 2017. The Cavaliers, a lock down defensive team, allowed just 51.6 points per game in 2019 which was best in the nation. The 2013 Michigan team was very efficient on offense — as they were the No. 7 team in field goal percentage and No. 18 in 3-point percentage.
Good free throw shooting can be an asset, but history shows it’s not a necessity. Michigan has a deep roster that can win in a lot of different ways. That might be by leaning on Houstan and fifth-year guard Eli Brooks to outshoot teams from the three or by overwhelming opponents with their size up front. This team is athletic, they’re versatile and they’re built for a run in March.
Howard and Dickinson aren’t concerned with the early free throw struggles. Even if it doesn’t improve, perhaps they have no reason to worry.
Josh Taubman can be reached on Twitter at @josh_taubman