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Free Throws Could Be Michigan’s Demise in March

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you sat through both of Michigan’s games this week, you probably began to notice a trend. The Wolverines, generally a team predicated on winning games through crisp offense and a knockdown three-point shooting ability, having been winning remarkably ugly through the first 25 games of the season. This week was no different, as Michigan slogged through Northwestern Tuesday night by scoring 58 points, and limped backwards towards the finishing line against a reeling Minnesota team to steal a three point victory.

On Tuesday, the first 20 minutes were a complete basketball abomination for both teams. In the first 10 minutes, Michigan made two field goals, a three-pointer and dunk by Charles Matthews and trailed 14-5. Northwestern extended this lead up to 19-11, but a “roaring” offensive run and stalwart defense from the Wolverines over the last seven minutes actually gave Michigan a 21-19 halftime lead.

The Wildcats’ field goal drought extended 10 minutes before Dererk Pardon’s jumper cut the Michigan lead to five. Northwestern came no closer than seven points over the final eight minutes, and Michigan pulled out the 58-47 victory.

In a sentence I never thought I’d write, the MVP for Michigan was the defense. They were able to hold the Wildcats to 38% shooting, 25% from 3, and forced 16 turnovers. Scottie Lindsey was the only Northwestern player to hit double figures, finishing with 15 points.

Offensively, while Michigan was far from perfect, there were definitely a few bright spots. Backcourt bench shooting duo Duncan Robinson and Jordan Poole splashed their way to 16 combined points, though Robinson was a woeful 0-6 on three-pointers despite getting great looks. A bizarre development this season is Robinson reemerging into a legitimate scoring threat off the bench, but not as a prolific knockdown shooter. Charles Matthews lead Michigan with 14 points, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 11. Miraculously, the Wolverines shot “well” from the free throw line, going 9-14 to finish right at their 64% average.

Then the free throw trouble resurfaced again. As is becoming customary in Michigan games this season, the Wolverines stumbled out of the gate. Minnesota was the far sharper team despite injuries and suspension trimming the Golden Gophers rotation down to seven players. After a back-and-forth affair that Minnesota controlled from the start, Michigan was extremely lucky to only find itself down two points at halftime.

Minnesota saw its lead stretched to 10 with 11 minutes left, and this game had an all-too-familiar feel to Michigan’s disastrous showing at home against Ohio State last year. But Michigan clawed their way back and took the lead on a Duncan Robinson layup with just over three minutes to go. A MAAR jumper and a Charles Matthews dunk should have put the game away, as Michigan lead 63-58 with 28 seconds remaining.

Minnesota ultimately fouled MAAR, one of two Michigan players with a pulse at the free throw line all season. The senior missed both free throws, and Isaiah Washington, who turned into Isiah Thomas against Michigan, knocked in a jumper. Michigan got the ball to reliable free throw shooter #2 Duncan Robinson, who despite being hacked by two Minnesota players, was called for a travel. The Golden Gophers ran the same pick play that Maryland ran for Kevin Huerter to get Nate Mason an open three, with the same result. After nearly stealing a game they probably had no business even winning in the first place, Michigan found itself in overtime.

The extra session was wild, as both teams traded baskets before a Davonte Fitzgerald basket tied the game at 73 with 11 seconds left. But like Maryland, Michigan found itself in a similar position needing a late basket. The only option was to let the man with four names take the ball to the basket, this time finishing with an and-one to seal the victory for the Wolverines.

Despite the close scoreline, Michigan actually got five very solid offensive performances. MAAR lead Michigan with 17 points including the late-game heroics, Moritz Wagner had 16 and 10 rebounds, Zavier Simpson had 15 points despite 1-8 from the three-point line, Charles Matthews had 13 and 11 rebounds and Duncan Robinson had 10 off the bench.

And let’s talk about the free throws. Michigan shot a woeful 12-28 from the line, and that’s after making their first five. 7-23 actually comes out to just over 30%, which is what Michigan managed to muster in the second half and overtime. At some point, this level of free throw shooting is going to become catastrophic in March. Michigan’s best free throw shooting lineup now is MAAR, Poole, Robinson, Wagner and a fifth guy to inbound the ball and run away from it. Matthews is at 54%, Simpson is at 48%, and Isaiah Livers is 1-4 on the season. To put it bluntly, that is disastrous.

Instead of two comfortable victories against the bottom half of the Big Ten, Michigan found itself in two rock fights and did just enough in both games to eke out the victory. These two victories puts Michigan at #20 in the latest AP rankings, with two trickier-than-expected road games this week.

The Wolverines travel to Evanston on Tuesday to complete the Champions League style home-and-home with Northwestern, as the two teams will play twice in eight days. On Sunday, Michigan plays at Wisconsin in the Kohl Center that has been very unkind to the Wolverines in recent years. Northwestern should have a bit of momentum after winning in Madison on Thursday night, 60-52.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, has been reeling. The Badgers sit at 10-15 overall and 3-9 in conference play, needing to win every game remaining on the schedule to even finish at .500 in the league. Injuries have been devastating to the Badgers, as D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King only played in 10 games for Wisconsin this season.

In their absence, Ethan Happ has tried to do everything. The junior, who has been there since Brian Butch but is somehow only in his third year of eligibility, is averaging 17.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Happ has had his own free throw nightmare this season, averaging 55% from the line including 8-19 against Nebraska. If Michigan can find a way to limit Happ, it will slow down the entire Badger offense.

Human charge-taking machine Brad Davison is the only other Badger in double figures, averaging just over 11 per game. Khalil Iverson is an undersized “3” or “4” with incredible leaping ability, but is not a deep shooting threat in the slightest going 0-21(!) from behind the arc this year. Freshmen Nate Reuvers and Aleem Ford have moved into the starting lineup, with Reuvers scoring 13 points against Maryland and Ford chipping in 12 against Northwestern last week.

Off the bench, it’s anyone’s guess as to who we’ll see. Sharpshooter Brevin Pritzl is averaging eight points per game, but didn’t score in six minutes on Sunday. Charles Thomas, Alex Illikainen, T.J. Schlundt and Aaron Moesch, who all played between five and 11 minutes on Sunday, all average right around one point per game. Those are guys 7-10 in the rotation, and one of many reasons why Wisconsin has struggled mightily to win games in the Big Ten.

For Michigan, it’s the exact same scenario as last week. Two wins will keep you in the hunt for a top four seed in the Big Ten tournament, and anything less will be a hit to the RPI and likely knock them out of the AP Poll. There’s a good probability Michigan is practicing their free throws at this very moment. Chances are, they’ll need them at some point this week.