Hardaway hits bottom at Spartans
Season low for sophomore leaves U-M 2-4 when he doesn't reach double digits
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- He was touted as the key to the Wolverines' hopes for a postseason run in 2012. He was the big name that Michigan coach John Beilein brought in two years ago. He was a player fans feared might leave after this season if he were too successful.
But on Sunday sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was none of those.
He sat in the locker room following the game with his shoulders slumped, his eyes staring past the shoes of the incoming media, his teeth grinding on his bright white mouthpiece -- something that usually appears often, as he smiles or yells to the crowd. On Sunday, it made its first appearance in the locker room as a stress reliever.
Assistant coach LaVall Jordan stood with his hand on Hardaway Jr.'s shoulder, speaking into his ear. Once Jordan exited, Hardaway Jr. brought himself to his feet with a heavy sigh.
Did he feel like he was ever in sync, one reporter asked.
"I can't even answer that question," he said, his eyes staying with the gap between the reporters' shoes. "Give them all the credit. They deserve it."
His mind was not in that locker room. He was still reliving the mistakes he had made and the big plays he hadn't made. He would talk about his shots, how they were on, how they were in a line, never to the left or right, always hitting the front of the rim or heel -- a good sign for a shooter because it means his technique isn't flawed. Though, for a scorer, it's a bad sign, because it means he didn't score.
Hardaway has failed to reach double-digit scoring in just six games this season. In those games, Michigan is 2-4. It's not as though he struggled mightily in all facets during those games. He has averaged three rebounds and two assists, close enough to his season averages of 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
But in Michigan's seven defeats, Hardaway Jr. has shot 31 percent, including 16 percent from behind the arc. Not a good sign for the player who has attempted the most 3-pointers on the Wolverines' squad.
Outside the locker room, senior captain Stu Douglass defended the sophomore, saying the team still had all the confidence in the world in his shooting ability.
"It's tough with a guy like that, there's so much pressure put on him to score," Douglass said. "If you're not shooting well, sometimes you feel like you're not contributing, if you're in his position. ... We have to keep reassuring him that we believe in him and we trust him."
Douglass has been there before. His 3-point shooting has been streaky during his career. He said it's about muscle memory and personal confidence. Douglass mentioned the early long shots that Hardaway Jr. has been forced to take because of opposing defenses, or Michigan's own offense not getting inside.
"We put him in a lot of pressure situations," Douglass said. "You know, 'Tim, take the ball, come off a ball screen, we need a bucket real quick,' and we're down 12, 14 in a real hostile environment."
There have been times this season when Hardaway Jr. has been the best on the floor, when he has come off the ball screen and knocked down that quick shot, when his 6-foot-6 combination of skill and athleticism were second to none.
But in his scoreless first half at Michigan State, the Izzone resorted to the "Daddy's better" cheer that Hardaway Jr. has heard before.
The only problem was, it wasn't just Daddy who was better Sunday. It was almost everyone.
Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @chanteljennings.