Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, gather ‘round and get your tickets because traveling to an arena near you is the Michigan men’s basketball team — performers of the best magic show in the Midwest.
That’s what I feel like I’ve been watching, as the Wolverines have dropped three of their past four games during the last 11 days — a great, big magic show.
The performance is quite simple: The Wolverines get up on a big stage, run around, wave their arms around for awhile, and then, voilà — just like that, the Wolverines are gone.
Sometimes they make themselves disappear for the first five or 10 minutes of the show. And at other times, you’ll even get to see them disappear for a full 20 minutes of game time. But on Tuesday, they performed their best magic show yet, vanishing for a full game against Michigan State. They disappeared so quickly that I’m not even sure that they showed up to the Breslin Center in the first place.
What’s the trick? Two words: Passive play.
An inability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line has plagued the Wolverines and has been one of the biggest reasons for their midseason mini-swoon. And unless they start looking for contact and playing with more aggression, the losses will keep coming, especially on the road.
Michigan is the worst team in the Big Ten at getting to the foul line. Its 378 attempts from the line place it dead last. Go ahead and digest that for a moment. The Wolverines shoot fewer free throws than Penn State, a team winless in the Big Ten, and Nebraska, a team that doesn’t even average 60 points a game.
But forget about the Big Ten, Michigan ranks as one of the worst teams in the country in that category. According to TeamRankings.com — a site that computes stats for games involving two NCAA Division I schools — the Wolverines are one of the least-fouled teams in the country.
Out of 347 Division I schools, the Wolverines rank 342nd in drawing fouls. Their 14.7 fouls drawn per game place them squarely between Troy and Louisiana-Monroe. Their 15 free-throw attempts per game place them in the bottom 15 in the nation, and their lack of aggression has really caught up with them during the past three road games.
During the first 21 games of the season, the Wolverines attempted over 16 free throws a game. In the current three-game road losing streak, the Wolverines have attempted a combined total of 15 shots from the charity stripe.
You’ll say that’s nonsense, that those stats don’t mean anything. That the reason the Wolverines have lost three of their last four games is because they play in the toughest conference and when you play on the road in three of the toughest arenas in the country, you’re going to lose, especially when you play four games in 11 days.
And I’ll still say, just look at the numbers. I’ll point to an eight-point loss to Indiana 11 days ago, in which Michigan shot just seven free throws; the Hoosiers took 25. I’ll direct you to the three-point overtime loss against Wisconsin on Saturday, during which the Wolverines attempted two free throws for the entire game. I repeat, they took two free throws the entire game (the Badgers attempted 10 free throws).
And then I’ll show you Tuesday night. While Michigan State dominated the contest, Michigan attempted six free throws — half of which came in the final 90 seconds of the game by players who normally never see a minute of game time.
You’ll ask how the heck can a few more free throws change the course of a 23-point blowout. I’d partially agree with you. At face value, a few more free throws wouldn’t have made much of a dent in the deficit, but the lack of free-throw attempts was indicative of Michigan’s passive play. The mere fact of creating fouls and getting to the foul line early in the contest would’ve established a physical presence for the Wolverines, and could’ve put Michigan State in foul trouble — potential altering the outcome.
Not one Spartan accumulated more than three fouls on Tuesday. In fact, no opposing player has racked up more than three fouls against the Wolverines since Illinois’ center Nnanna Egwu on Jan. 27 — a stretch of six games.
You’ll say Michigan needs to get Glenn Robinson III more involved, he’s only scored eight points in those three games. I’ll say Robinson needs to get himself more involved, he’s not being aggressive enough. Total number of foul shots attempted in those three road games: zero. But he’s not alone, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary have combined for zero free-throw attempts during that stretch, as well.
Yes, the case can be made that Michigan is playing tougher competition and that it’s a finesse team. That it’s not built to shoot 20-plus free throws every game. But the Wolverines are also not designed to win attempting just five free throws a contest, either. They can create high totals from the charity stripe, as they’ve demonstrated in quality wins against Kansas State (13), North Carolina State (20), Arkansas (18) and Minnesota (25),
Before its loss to Indiana, Michigan had attempted single-digit free throws in a game just once — a 28-point victory against Binghamton in December. Since then, the Wolverines have attempted fewer than 10 free throws just three times, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve all come in the past three losses.
There’s an old adage that says you can afford to shoot 3-pointers at home, but you’ve got to shoot free throws if you want to win on the road.
Michigan should heed the advice, or else its next magic trick will be an early exit in the postseason.
Steven Braid can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @stevebraid