WICHITA, Kan. — Jaaron Simmons has a word for Houston. For North Carolina. For Providence. For Texas A&M. Heck, for Lipscomb, if pigs fly.
“If they want to Hack-a-Shaq, come on,” Michigan’s senior guard said with a grin early Friday morning, a half-hour after the No. 3 Wolverines advanced to play Saturday in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. “Just more points on the board.”
There are narratives in the Big Dance, and there are narratives, the kind the faithful say while simultaneously rolling their eyes at the fates above. That last kind was on the lips of Michigan fans again late Thursday night — at least among those who could stay awake during an uninspiring, nails-down-a-chalkboard 61-47 victory over No. 14-seed Montana.
“Gotta hit our free throws,” one Wolverines fan said to another as they sat behind press row at Intrust Bank Arena.
They did. Eventually.
For one night, at least, the Yeah, but … part of the Michigan-to-the-Final-Four discussion took a powder.
When you have as many things going for you as the Wolverines (29-7) do right now — winning 10 straight, improving to 11-1 over your last 12 win-or-go-home contests, playing defense like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens — the nits are hard to pick.
Except for this one: Michigan is one of the worst free-throw shooting rosters still standing in Bracketville, coming into the Big Dance connecting on just 65.9 percent as a team from the line, a number that’s ordinarily a giant NCAA tourney red flag.
Michigan is 326th in free throw shooting? How many teams are there 😱
— Joshua Ditton (@_Soulfire) March 16, 2018
I forgot how bad Michigan is at the free throw line. #MarchMadness
— Ryan (@Isley23) March 16, 2018
Thursday wasn’t much better, on the whole. But look closer. Michigan wound up 14 of 22 (63.6 percent) from the stripe against the scrappy but size-challenged Grizzlies — yet the Wolverines finished the contest by making 11 of 14 free throws (78.6 percent) over the last 4 minutes, pounding the final nails into Montana’s March coffin.
Sometimes, if the rest of your ship is tight enough, timing trumps volume. Michigan swingman Charles Matthews, who went into the NCAA tourney connecting on only 56.1 percent of his free throws, drained 6 of 8 from the stripe, all in the second half.
Press your luck, tough guy.
“We shoot a lot more free throws than his past teams,” freshman forward Isaiah Livers said of coach John Beilein’s approach to his team’s screaming inconsistencies at the stripe. “He has us crowd around the stereo, turns it all the way up. It can be super loud or super silent.”
Livers said the coaches put a special emphasis on situational free-throw shooting. To simulate a hostile road environment, they crank the music up as loud as she’ll go. To simulate the more sedate — and massive — NCAA Tournament settings, the they might turn the stereo off entirely.
They practice shooting free throws for the times when nobody can think straight. And for the times when everyone is alone with their thoughts, when they’re thinking too damn much.
“It’s all mental,” Livers said. “[Beilein] just tells us, ‘It’s all mental. If you say it’s going in, it’s going to go in.’”
Give us the last swing of the hammer.
The final word.
“Coach tells us when we go up there, ‘Go win the game, go take care of business up there,’” Simmons said. “And that gives us confidence to knock them down.
“For us to miss free throws, he hates it. But at the same time, when we do, he’s just [going], ‘Come on, come on,’ just gives us that extra push to just go up there and be confident and knock them down.”