It goes without saying that no coach expects to see his team shoot 23 percent from 3-point range and make just 13 of 29 free throws.

But for John Beilein on Tuesday night, that was especially true.

Free-throw shooting has been perhaps the single greatest emphasis for the Michigan men’s basketball team this offseason after it hit a lackluster 66 percent of its foul shots last season to finish 323rd in the country in that category. And leading up to the season opener against Norfolk State, the Wolverines’ coach was liking the improvements he’d been seeing.

“They’re good, they’re very good,” Beilein said Tuesday night of his team’s shooting numbers in practice. “Especially foul shooting. We put pressure on them all the time.”

But for one reason or another, none of those improvements were on display in Michigan’s 63-44 win. After a solid-enough start from beyond the arc, the Wolverines hit just two of their final 16 attempts. That script was flipped from the charity stripe, where they bettered their anemic 4-for-13 first half total with a relatively acceptable 9-for-16 showing in the second.

When looking at Tuesday’s boxscore, one player in particular jumps out — redshirt junior Charles Matthews.

Shooting has never been Matthews’ strength; the 6-foot-6 wing hit just 31 percent of his 3-pointers and 56 percent of his free throws last season. Even in that context, Beilein was surprised, to say the least, with his failure to make any of his four threes or five attempts from the foul line.

“He was just 5-for-6 (during Monday’s practice),” Beilein said. “But he’s got to get through it, and it’s not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. … Charles is better than that, and he will be as we go forward.”

Matthews’ performance stands apart for other reasons. On Thursday he was named, along with junior guard Zavier Simpson, one of Michigan’s team captains. He flirted with entering the NBA Draft last spring before removing his name at the 11th hour, and came back to Ann Arbor as the Wolverines’ leading returning scorer.

It’s his undisputed status as a veteran leader that prompted Beilein to differentiate between Matthews’ shooting woes and that of younger players, such as Ignas Brazdeikis. Early in the first half, the freshman forward swished his first three-pointer — a catch-and-shoot look from the right corner — but didn’t find the net from deep again.

Beilein diagnosed the cause of Brazdeikis and other underclassmen’s struggles as “jitters” — typical first-game nerves. He couldn’t do the same for Matthews.

“(We) took a couple bad shots,” he said. “But other ones — I thought once Iggy made that three from the corner, I thought he’d be good, and then he tried not to miss the next two. Charles (was) thinking too much, just like at the foul line. We’ll just get through it.”

“Getting through it” was a common sentiment after Tuesday night and also after Friday’s exhibition win over Northwood, in which it took the Wolverines 19 minutes to hit a 3-pointer. They knocked down four of their next six after that, however, and players and coaches expressed confidence that this display was more representative of their shooting ability.

“You can’t really determine if we’re a shooting or a not-shooting team off of this performance,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “… As the year goes on and we start getting more experience, we’ll definitely start hitting shots. It’s nothing to be concerned about.”

For now, Poole’s probably correct. Michigan didn’t need even an average shooting performance to comfortably win its season opener, thanks to a defense that stifled the Spartans to the tune of 31-percent shooting from the floor. Defense should carry the Wolverines to routine victory against most of their non-conceference slate, coupled with overwhelming athletic and physical superiority.

But with the loss of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson and a combined 214 treys, coupled with the aforementioned free-throw struggles, from a season ago, shooting is still the biggest question Michigan will have to answer this year. And until it does, in fact, get through it, concerns — fairly or unfairly — will linger.

“We had it last year, we have it this year,” Beilein said. “I’m the same coach and we coach the same way. If (we struggle with shooting), we put a bigger emphasis on it. It’s got to come around. We can’t win, we can’t win without making foul shots. And I’m confident we will.”


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