EVANSTON — When the Michigan men’s basketball team needed a spark on Wednesday, it turned to an unlikely source.
It was a game in which the Wolverines shouldn’t have needed a spark in the first place, for a number of reasons. But even coming off a season-altering win over Michigan State, Michigan struggled out of the gate against Northwestern.
The Wolverines’ early-game struggles have become all too predictable. Just four days after missing 10 of its first 11 shots against the Spartans, Michigan failed to find bottom on 13 of its first 15 against the Big Ten’s doormat.
Enter Austin Davis.
In the midst of a breakout senior season, the forward injected a jolt of life into a half-empty Welsh-Ryan Arena when the Wolverines needed it most. After Isaiah Livers’s baseline drive was cut off, the junior forward found an open Davis beneath the rim.
With Michigan trailing, 13-8, he rose above three Wildcats and threw down a two-handed flush.
The dunk ignited an 8-0 spurt for the Wolverines — one that eventually became a 27-5 run, propelling Michigan to a 79-54 victory. Davis was a key cog through it all, scoring seven points in just six minutes, on his way to nine total points. His first-half performance came on the heels of a dismal start from senior center Jon Teske, who missed his first four layups before throwing a dunk off the back of the rim.
“(Austin) is so strong,” Livers said. “… His finishing around the rim is probably the best on the team, honestly.”
Just over a year ago, he was upended by then-freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. for Michigan’s backup center duties. At the time, Johns was battling a steep learning curve and playing out of position. Even still, former coach John Beilein preferred him over Davis.
This season, however, Davis has flipped the script. He began the campaign behind sophomore forward Colin Castleton before surpassing him in December. Against conference opponents, Davis is averaging 5.3 points on a team-best 71 percent shooting clip.
What’s most intriguing about Davis, though, is the timeline of his emergence. He’s peaking in his fourth year with the program — a time in which players have usually already reached their ceiling.
In Davis’s case, the turning point came when Michigan tabbed Beilein’s replacement in May.
“That’s the Austin we knew, but the man just took coach (Juwan) Howard to come in here and work on his post moves,” Livers said. “His post moves are elite. I’ve had to guard that big dude down there before — it’s not easy at all.”
Added Davis: “(Howard) is high energy all the time. He’s pedal to the metal every minute of practice. I love it. He’s down in the trenches with the post guys working with us. He’s got the pad, he’s banging on us and he’s giving us feedback as we’re going. It’s really invaluable. … The amount of knowledge and corrections he makes everyday is incredible. He played 19 years in the NBA, and it really comes through.”
Following Wednesday’s 4-for-4 shooting performance, finishing with nine points, Davis is now shooting an eye-popping 94 percent from the field over Michigan’s last five games. At this rate, he won’t remain an unlikely spark source for much longer.
When Davis returned to the locker room after the game, there was an unfamiliar face waiting. Dikembe Mutombo, one of Howard’s self-proclaimed “favorite teammates” from his playing days — greeted him with the hand he used to popularize his signature finger wag.
For a moment, the line between idolization and reality was blurred.
And for Wednesday’s unlikely spark source, it was only fitting for his first congratulations to come from an unfamiliar face.