Just three weeks ago, when the Michigan basketball team beat Holy Cross in its second game of the season, the win carried a solemn air. It took the Wolverines to 2-0 but, for the second time in five days, they had shot less than 25 percent from deep.
Michigan’s defense meant it could survive its shooting woes, but for a program whose offensive identity has revolved around the 3-pointer under coach John Beilein, making just nine of its 45 3-point tries was a problem.
“If you look at our numbers in practice and everything, it’s just—it’s not happening,” Beilein said at the time.
Six games later, the Wolverines look like a legitimate national title contender. Their defense continues to be the main reason for that — they lead the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and have held two top-11 offenses under 70 points in the past four days.
But Michigan’s offense is starting to pull its weight, and it has its 3-point shooting to thank. The Wolverines — buoyed by a combined 24-of-48 effort from three — looked like an offensive machine at points in this week’s wins over North Carolina and Purdue, finding open looks with ease and nailing contested threes when they had to.
“It’s all about our passing really, that we’re seeing each other,” Beilein said after a 13-of-26 3-point performance against the Boilermakers. “The ball stuck a couple of times today, but other than that, if we can just keep moving the ball and get live action, somebody’s gonna come open. Somebody’s gonna make a mistake and leave one of our guys.”
Before the season, whenever Beilein was asked who would step up after Michigan lost its top three 3-point shooters from last season, he defaulted to sophomore guard Jordan Poole. But Poole opened the season by making just one of his first 10 attempts from three, and his struggles seemed to infiltrate the offense as a whole.
Now, the Wolverines have found the balance to survive when Poole struggles, as he did in the first half against the Tar Heels. But when Poole makes his threes, the full firepower of Michigan’s offense is on display.
That was the case Saturday afternoon against Purdue, as Poole went 5-of-5 in a 21-point performance.
“I’ve worked so hard in the gym,” Poole said. “Me and (assistant) coach (DeAndre Haynes) alway find ways that I can get my shots. They’re gonna fall eventually, you know what I’m saying?”
Added Boilermakers coach Matt Painter: “You can’t let Jordan Poole get five good looks.”
That showing on Saturday forced Purdue to keep an eye on Poole throughout the contest, allowing redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews and junior center Jon Teske to go a combined 5-of-8 from three. When the Boilermakers held the Wolverines without a field goal for over nine minutes in the second half, it was Teske who broke the drought with a pick-and-pop three.
“We got guys like Jon and (junior point guard Zavier Simpson) and (sophomore forward) Isaiah (Livers) staying after practice to shoot threes because we know that it’s a huge part of our game,” Poole said. “So being able to knock down those shots from the ‘1’ to the ‘5’ is definitely huge for us.”
On Saturday, that same effect worked in reverse. One possession after Teske’s three, he got the ball at the top of the arc and looked to shoot. Recognizing the threat, two defenders closed in on Teske, leaving Poole wide open to his left. Teske found Poole, and just like that, Michigan had shut the door on Purdue’s comeback hopes and restored its lead to 20.
“I’m not gonna force anything,” Teske said. “I was gonna try to shoot that third one, but Carsen (Edwards) was right there so I kicked it to (Poole), I know (Poole is) a better shooter than me.”
As the Wolverines’ perfect start has proven, they can win with defense. This morning, Beilein woke up, flipped his calendar to December and reflected on what he called a “pretty good” November.
If Saturday’s 3-point shooting is any indication, December could be even better.