ANN ARBOR — It feels inevitable Michigan’s season will end in the NCAA tournament suddenly and with a gut punch after a series of late missed free throws.
The Wolverines are currently projected as a No. 7 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and a No. 8 seed by CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm. It puts them in upset range against a Nos. 9 or 10 seed, but the crux of the matter isn’t that UM will play a motivated, hungry team. It’s Michigan’s free-throw shooting is dreadful, grim, awful, terrible, and every other adjective with a definition of “extremely bad.”
There are 12 Division I teams worse than Michigan at shooting free throws. The Wolverines rank 338th, shooting a putrid 64.4 percent from the charity stripe. They’re called free throws for a reason, and it’s not because the uncontested 15-foot shot is difficult.
Any time Grambling, Prairie View A&M, and Sacramento State — among the worst college basketball programs in the country — are better than Michigan at free-throw shooting, it’s time to sound the alarm bells.
“We have positive outcome meditation,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I didn’t think we were going to have to resort to that. We’re ready for anything right now — a hypnotist. I’m going to find out anything we can do right now.”
Those comments came Feb. 3 after Michigan escaped 76-73 in overtime against Minnesota. The Wolverines missed 16 of their 28 free-throw attempts, including two in the final seconds of regulation by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, which would have put the game on ice.
“I can’t explain Muhammad missing those two,” Beilein said. “He’s not tired. We gave him two days off. It’s just a fluke.”
Abdur-Rahkman, who has the team’s second-best free-throw shooting percentage at 79 percent, said free throws should be second nature, adding he doesn’t bring it up to teammates because the more it’s discussed, the more psychological it becomes.
Zavier Simpson is the biggest liability, especially late in games. He might be the team’s best overall point guard and a superb defender, but it’s become apparent he can’t be on the court during the final minutes when games are in doubt. The sophomore is 23 of 47 from the line this season, a woeful 49 percent. It’s an unheard of number for a point guard of a blue-blood program.
Simpson’s struggles came into focus against Michigan State and Purdue, when late misses played a role in the final minutes. It’s particularly befuddling when you consider he was a 77 percent free-throw shooter during his senior season at Lima Senior, when he averaged 27 points per game and was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball.
Charles Matthews, the team’s second-leading scorer at 14 points per game, can make jump shots from every area of the court. But when he steps to the line, it’s as if a hex is applied to him. He’s made a paltry 53.5 percent of his free throws this season, not much better than Simpson.
Lending credence to the mind game hypothesis is Beilein revealing last week Matthews made 90 out of 100 free throws in practice and Simpson made 74 out of 100. Moritz Wagner, who shoots 68 percent from the line, made 49 consecutive free throws in practice.
“For all these guys, it’s just between the ears,” said senior forward Duncan Robinson, who is shooting a team-high 92.6 percent from the line. “There’s nothing wrong with their form. Nothing’s broken. It’s just a mental thing they’ve got to block out.”
Michigan usually shoots 25 free throws in practice, but Beilein upped the total to 100 hoping that muscle memory would take over. It hasn’t.
The Wolverines made 78 percent of their free throws last season and closed out several games with clutch free-throw shooting. Of course, Derrick Walton, Jr., the team’s point guard and heart and soul, shot 87.6 percent from the line. This year’s starting five are shooting a collective 60.5 percent.
In Beilein’s 26 seasons as a Division I coach, none of his teams has been this bad at the line. Only one of his teams at Division II Le Moyne shot lower than Michigan’s current 64.4 percent. He’s only had one Michigan team finish the season under 70 percent from the free-throw line — the 2010-11 team shot 69.9 percent.
Beilein’s told his team to think about their mothers. A “wonderful, kind woman,” he said, hoping to relax them.
“They work their tails off,” Beilein added. “They deserve to make those. If you hear frustration from me, it’s because I can’t find the answer yet. Guess what? If you’re winning games, you’re going to get fouled late in the game.”
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