ANN ARBOR — The good news for Michigan is that it won a game Saturday after missing 16-of-28 free throws. The bad news, of course, is the 16 missed free throws. And given that it wasn’t an isolated incident — Michigan is shooting 64 percent for the season — John Beilein is searching for answers.
“I usually tell them to think about their mother,” he said after Michigan’s 76-73 overtime win over Minnesota. Beilein hopes thinking about a “wonderful, kind woman” will relax a free throw shooter. “I didn’t do it today. I’ll have to do it more. ‘Think about the ones you love.'”
Beilein changed the foul shooting approach for Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson earlier this week, with the goal of building muscle memory. Matthews was 5-for-12 Saturday, his season percentage moving to 54. Simpson was 0-for-2 and is now at 48 percent.
Beilein was asked after the game if he’s considered a sports psychologist. “We have a positive outcome meditation they do,” he said. “I didn’t think we were going to have to resort to that. We’re ready for anything right now — a hypnotist, anything we can do.”
Any mechanical flaws, Beilein believes, were corrected much earlier in the season. Redshirt senior Duncan Robinson, a 93 percent foul shooter this season who made his only attempt Saturday, agrees.
“For all these guys, it’s just between the ears,” Robinson said. “There’s nothing wrong with their form, nothing’s broken. It’s just a mental thing they’ve got to block out. And I’m confident they will.”
There is no objective measure of mental toughness, but consider that this Michigan team has regularly battled back from second-half deficits. The Wolverines did it again Saturday, winning despite trailing 50-40 with 11:15 left in regulation. Beilein and the players often mention their togetherness.
As far as shooting touch, the Wolverines are a respectable 37 percent from 3 this season, even after going 8-for-32 Saturday. The two players struggling from the line, Matthews and Simpson, are good outside shooters.
So performances like Saturday, when Michigan went 5-for-17 in the second half and 2-for-5 in overtime, are hard to explain. Bad foul shooting has yet to cost Michigan a victory this season. When the Wolverines went just 8-for-22 against UCLA on Dec. 9, they also came away with an overtime win.
Beilein began his press conferences after each of those games in a similar fashion. “I never thought we’d be coming in here and talking about a win again,” he said Saturday.
He was, though, because the Wolverines didn’t hang their heads when Minnesota hit a barrage of difficult mid-range shots. Michigan’s zone defense, deployed with 12 minutes left in regulation, slowed the Gophers enough. On the offensive end, Matthews (13 points), Simpson (15), and others were aggressive attacking the basket.
Even after a potentially devastating end to regulation — two missed free throws from the typically reliable Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a traveling call on Robinson as Minnesota tried to intentionally foul, and a Nate Mason 3 to tie the game — the Wolverines regrouped before overtime.
“I didn’t feel good in that timeout,” Beilein said. “First of all, I was not a happy coach, with my both my team and the way that worked out in the end that they got that extra possession. I like my team right there. They kept telling me, ‘Coach, we got this, we got this.’ They got me back to coaching.”
Abdur-Rahkman’s and-one basket with 3.8 seconds left broke a tie, helping Michigan (19-6, 8-4) avoid an upset.
Michigan found a way to win, despite foul shooting that would almost always lead to a loss in a close game. The Wolverines’ foul shooting ranks near the bottom of the country, and is the worst percentage for a Beilein team in his 26 seasons as a Division I head coach. Just one of his Division II Le Moyne teams was worse, in 1985-86. Beilein alluded to that squad Saturday. For now, he’s trying to figure out a solution for these Wolverines.
“They work their tails off,” he said of his slumping foul shooters. “They deserve to make those. If you hear frustration from me, it’s because I can’t find the answer yet.”