Of the countless memorable moments during John Beilein’s tenure at Michigan, two timeless images stand above the rest. They are, of course, Trey Burke stepping back and releasing an inch-perfect shot over the outstretched arms of Kansas’ Kevin Young in 2013, and Jordan Poole, legs spread, flailing to the floor at the buzzer as his shot propelled the Wolverines past Houston in last year’s tournament.
There are plenty of differences between the two shots, but the important thing is what the they have in common — both came from 3-point range. That’s not a coincidence — 3-point shooting has always been a core identity for Beilein’s Michigan teams.
And he’s always had the personnel to match. Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Derrick Walton and Moritz Wagner, all of whom rank among the Wolverines’ biggest stars under Beilein, were prolific from beyond the arc.
This year’s team is completely different. Beyond Poole, Beilein’s biggest offensive weapons will be junior point guard Zavier Simpson, redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, none of whom have proven an ability to shoot 3-pointers at the collegiate level.
“Let’s face it, we lost our three top shooters (from last year),” Beilein said at his first press conference of the season. “That’s a lot of threes in those three and high-percentage guys so we have to replace that somehow.”
Part of Michigan’s adaptation to its lack of 3-point shooting will be a heavy reliance on its suffocating defense. But it might also do something unprecedented under Beilein — predicate its offense on getting to the basket.
“(Getting) downhill, I think that’s gonna be our identity right now,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes.
The Wolverines have added new sets on offense to better match their personnel. Michigan’s identity may center around its defensive prowess but its offensive talent isn’t weak, just different.
Brazdeikis was the team’s top scorer in its three exhibitions in Spain this summer. He flashed that ability again at Monday’s open practice, finishing a silky reverse layup through traffic on an otherwise quiet day.
“Iggy, he’s like a, I don’t know what you want to call him, he’s just barbaric,” Haynes said. “Like he’s just one of those dudes that once he gets into the paint, he’s tough (to) guard.”
Matthews is known as a defensive standout but he began to display his scoring ability last March, when he averaged 14.8 points per game in the Wolverines’ run to the national championship. Even in his best offensive stretch of the season, he scored by getting to the basket and hitting short-range jumpers. Just four of his 36 made baskets in the NCAA Tournament came from beyond the arc.
The key to Michigan’s new offensive identity might be Simpson. As Beilein’s point guard, the offense runs through him. His offense was often criticized last year, when he shot just 28.6 percent from deep at the point guard position — a role previously occupied by Walton and Burke. But 3-point shooting just isn’t Simpson’s game.
“Zavier, he’s one of the best guards at getting downhill. You know, everyday we work on different finishes,” Haynes said. “If we can get him a little 15-footer pull-up, that would be great.
“But right now, everything with a floater — or we call it a three o’clock, nine o’clock finish at the wide layups — he’s probably one of the best guards I’ve seen finish those types of layups in the country.”
Beilein admits his team’s 3-point shooting needs to improve. The subject has dominated pre-season headlines.
He also knows that this offense is unlike any other that he has had at Michigan. And that might mean venturing into uncharted territory.
“That’s the genius of coach Beilein,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “He’s always tweaking the offense to the strength of the personnel, whether it’s our shooting, whether it’s our guys’ ability to get downhill, coach is masterful at adjusting the offense so that it’s the strength of our personnel.”