EVANSTON – After scoring 19 points against Army on Dec. 28, Michigan freshman Reed Baker knew he had the ability to score with the best of them.
But never in his wildest dreams did he think he could score without his shoes.
With the Wolverines clinging to an early 6-4 lead eight minutes into the game, Baker was seen on the defensive end trailing his own man, while trying to wriggle his left foot back into his hightops. After freshman Ekpe Udoh blocked a Northwestern shot, senior Dion Harris sprinted out on one of Michigan’s few fast-break opportunities.
And that’s when Baker decided there was no time for shoes.
The Fort Myers, Fla., native ran up court and found an open spot on the right wing. Harris fed him, and the freshman did what he does best: Baker sunk a three-pointer – all without his shoe completely on his foot.
Shoe or no shoe, Michigan needed every bit of Baker’s team-leading 11 points in Saturday’s defeat of Northwestern.
The Wildcats played almost the entire game in a trapping 1-3-1 zone to offset the Wolverines’ advantage in size and athleticism. Northwestern compacted on the interior, but in doing so conceded a 3-pointer on the wing.
It was up to Michigan to exploit this. Although Baker doesn’t usually play heavy minutes, he was needed extensively because of his ability to hit the outside shot. The 26 minutes he logged against the Wildcats was his second-highest total of the season.
“They were playing that zone, and I know my strength is spot-up shooting,” Baker said. “It was really exciting, and I was glad I got a chance to show myself out there.”
Baker was 3-of-7 from 3-point range, but it was his mere presence on the floor that seemed to extend the Wildcats’ zone, leaving more room in the paint in the second half.
Baker’s scoring is something the Wolverines are growing accustomed to. In last Wednesday’s conference-opening win over Illinois, Baker came in off the bench and hit a big 3-pointer in the second half.
“Whenever Reed is out there on the floor, we know we want to get him the ball,” said senior Dion Harris, who assisted on two of Baker’s three trifectas. “We want to get him shots because he can knock them down.”
Baker’s ability to hit 3-pointers is a skill Michigan desperately needs. The team has shot just 31 percent from the outside, and no one besides Baker has shown a knack for hitting 3-pointers on a consistent basis.
Harris and junior Ron Coleman, normally reliable shooters, have been streaky throughout much of December and January. Zone defenses, like the one used by Northwestern, should become more prevalent given Michigan’s difficulties shooting the outside shot.
But with a shooter as capable as Baker on the bench, Michigan may have a permanent solution to these situations.
“Reed Baker giving us the kind of minutes and production that he was able to give us was tremendous for a freshman player,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “We felt coming into the game that this was the type of ballgame that he could give us some quality minutes. I didn’t anticipate it being 26 minutes, but he earned it because of the way he played. He certainly made some big shots for us.”
If Baker keeps up the stellar shooting, maybe – just maybe – he and the rest of the Wolverines can trade in those clunky sneakers for a pair of dancing shoes come March.