Maryland forward Donta Scott set a screen at the top of the key before popping out to the left wing and hoisting up a 3-pointer. As Michigan senior forward Isaiah Livers leapt to defend the shot, Scott watched the ball ripple the net.
Only that isn’t Donta Scott. It’s senior walk-on forward C.J. Baird.
No, that’s not a typo. As a member of the Wolverines’ scout team, this is a typical assignment for Baird. The scout team runs a scrimmage against the starters and reserves the day before each game, and each time their roles change based on that week’s opponent.
For senior walk-on guard Luke Wilson, his assignments tend to be more unconventional than his teammates’ roles. As the sole lefty on the scout team, Wilson is always the go-to man when the opposition has a lefty on its roster, even if that means playing the 6-foot Wilson as imposing former Ohio State forward Jae’Sean Tate.
“He was a 6-8, left-handed brute in the middle of the floor, he was strong, couldn’t really shoot the ball, but he had all these post moves and was big, got offensive rebounds, super athletic,” Wilson said. “And then there’s me, this 6-foot, unathletic, pretty skinny (kid). But he was left-handed so I was assigned to be him.”
As the scout team’s assignments change on a game-by-game basis, so does its tendencies. When mirroring a team like Indiana, the squad may be instructed to focus more on working the ball inside. For Iowa, on the other hand, the players received a simple message:
“If you had any room at all to raise up and shoot a three, you had to let it go,” Wilson said.
The coaching staff gives the scout team a series of plays to study before each scrimmage. While the plays themselves are never as crisp as what the Wolverines will actually see come gametime, the schemes, which are usually devised by assistant coach Saddi Washington, help give them an idea of what they can expect the next night.
“We’ll get our scout team together 30 minutes before film and we might go through 10 — and I’ve given guys as many as 14 — plays,” Washington said. “And not that we run them flawlessly, but their ability to pick up plays is incredible and they go out and execute them in practice and it just helps us prepare for what we’re going to see on a gameday.”
In addition to focusing on simulating upcoming matchups, the scout team also helps the starters fine-tune some areas that need improvement. Toward the midpoint of the season, freshman center Hunter Dickinson struggled against double teams in the post. The scout team took notice, forcing Dickinson into passes out of double teams to help transform a weakness into a strength.
That’s proven to be a consistent feature of the scout team, and turning weaknesses into strengths has been routinely singled out by Michigan coach Juwan Howard.
While his attention may start at the top of the Wolverines’ depth chart, Howard understands how essential his scout team is in preparing his team for the grind of a grueling months-long season.
“(Howard) has paid a lot of attention to detail,” Baird said. “When we’re rotating into new roles, he pulls us aside individually, and that’s something that I really appreciate being an end of the bench guy, and they still show that attention to detail. They value our growth as much as they value the growth of the starters.”
On gameday, the scout team remains an active voice on the Michigan sidelines. Using their scrimmages as a reference point, the scout team can recognize plays quickly, sometimes before they even happen.
“You’ll see a lot of times those guys yelling out what’s gonna happen next, a cross screen, a pindown or a flare screen,” Washington said. “And all of that communication coming from the sideline is useful because as coaches sometimes we’re not able to see everything that’s coming. But it’s the collective effort of our scout team having gone through the plays and understanding what’s coming to help the guys out on the floor.”
With the NCAA Tournament tipping off this weekend, the scout team will prepare for its toughest test of the year and without its most well-known member, as Baird will sit for the rest of the season due to a knee injury. Baird will not suit up, but the scout team will continue to push its teammates as hard as possible at a time where a loss is no longer just a learning experience.
While the Wolverines have to prepare for new opponents on two days’ notice, the scout team must also learn how to mimic foes from across the country that they have never seen before.
The coaching staff splits into four separate groups to create scouting reports for every possible opponent in Michigan’s region for that week, and has a full gameplan structured for the scout team to run in the next morning’s practice depending on the next round’s opponent.
“When we see our matchups, when we see who we could potentially be playing, once we win that first game we’re already on it,” Baird said. “We’re watching stuff and we know some of these teams and players already. We pride ourselves on being the best we can be right away. No matter who wins this game or who wins the next, we wanna make sure we’re ready for them.”
For the scout team, one of the most intriguing prospects of the NCAA Tournament is the ability to show off new play styles. With a larger pool of players and teams the Wolverines could see, the team could go from defensive-minded one night to playing a high-octane, run-and-gun offense the next.
“It’s a unique situation, and it’s really exciting because you get to expand who you’re playing across the country,” Wilson said.
While they may not see much (if any) playing time come gameday, the scout team is an essential cog in Michigan’s game preparation and even its in-game performance. In a 20-4 season, the scout team has proven its value.
“Without them, our success wouldn’t be what it is,” Washington said.
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