Before the Michigan men’s basketball team can usher in the new year — and with it, a full conference slate — it must clear one final hurdle.
Jacksonville comes to Crisler Center on Saturday in the final non-conference game of the Wolverines’ regular season, before Michigan (1-1 Big Ten, 11-3 overall) begins its gauntlet featuring 16 Big Ten games in 53 days.
Though the Dolphins (5-10) hardly present a more pressing challenge than Alabama A&M did last Thursday (the difference between the 337th and 350th-ranked teams, respectively, according to KenPom), the matchup offers the Wolverines a chance to recalibrate, once more, before the stretch run.
Part of that recalibration, of course, is to regain health. Junior center Moritz Wagner hasn’t played since he exited the Dec. 12 game against Texas, and his status for Saturday’s game remains tenuous.
Wagner traveled back to Germany over the holiday break for a few days, but maintained full treatment and planned to revamp his cardio in order to regain game condition. His status for the game Saturday will largely be determined on whether that pain has subsided.
“I don’t want to put a timeline on (his return), but I’m not concerned about it,” Beilein said after the game last Thursday. “As soon as the pain is gone, we’ll know, and the pain is diminishing every day.”
Given the need to get Wagner healthy for Big Ten play, starting early next week, it would not be surprising to see Wagner get one more game to recuperate, whether that be on the bench entirely or in a limited role.
While Wagner has been out, though, center Jon Teske has taken full advantage. In the two games he has filled in, the sophomore seven-footer has averaged 11.5 points and seven rebounds, while playing over 25 minutes per contest.
His looming defensive presence in the paint has earned him a role on the court regardless, but recently Teske has taken strides to boost his offensive output.
Against Detroit, Teske took 12 shots, more than double his previous career high — a sure sign of growing comfort on the offensive end.
The other end of that recalibration is the evolution of a team identity. That identity has begun to center around the progression of redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews.
“He’s starting to understand how this all works, and choosing his spots more carefully,” Beilein said Thursday, after Matthews scored a career-high 30 points on what Beilein called “15 good shots.”
Added Robinson: “It takes some time to adjust to a system like this I think he’s started to figure out where he can be aggressive on offense, and really be in attack mode. I think you saw it right from the start today, and I think we’re at our best when he’s attacking like that.”
For a guy who already leads the team in points, and nears the top of the team in several other statistical categories, there is still plenty of room to grow.
For Matthews, that growth extends to his role off the court as much as it does on it.
“My mindset is never to come out here and score the ball, score the ball,” Matthews said Thursday. “I’m just really trying to become an effective leader. I feel like these guys really look up to me at times, and when things get rough, I just try to be level-headed with the guys. I try to give back with my leadership.”
Saturday likely won’t be one of those rough spots, of course. Jacksonville owns the 216th-ranked scoring offense (73.3 points per game) and the 300th-ranked scoring defense (78.8 points allowed per game).
But Matthews’ point remains crystal clear. Though this is his first season as a Wolverine, this is his team now. That transition takes time, it takes repetition, it takes game experience, it takes trial and error. Matthews and the rest of his team will have yet another chance to forge that identity Saturday.
Because when the calendar turns from 2017, the margin for error goes with it.