Thirteen months ago, as the Breslin Center swelled with noise, Jon Teske picked up a foul.
Michigan State’s Gavin Schilling had gained inside positioning on Teske during a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman drive five minutes into the game, pulling down the rebound when a shot fell off the rim. Teske, in that early because Moritz Wagner picked up a foul of his own, swatted wildly at the ball, finding Schilling’s arm instead. The referee blew his whistle. Teske went to the bench. Michigan spent the proceeding minutes trying stay afloat with Austin Davis manning the ‘5,’ doing so in a game it would eventually win.
It’s only fitting then that on Friday afternoon, Teske stood near the door of Crisler Center’s media room explaining the intricacies of defending without fouling — a concept Michigan coach John Beilein has emphasized to him for three years now, and one the Spartans will undoubtedly test on Sunday.
“You just gotta kinda, I think, pick and choose where to be more aggressive,” Teske said. “The first couple minutes, you can’t be too aggressive. At the same time, you’re just not gonna give them a layup. So you just gotta wall up.
“As the game goes on, you can be a little bit more aggressive depending how many fouls you have. Fouls are gonna happen, but you can’t have bad fouls reaching in and coming down hard on someone. You just gotta protect those five fouls that you have and play your game.”
Last year, the Wolverines could usually survive Teske or Wagner getting into foul trouble. That’s no longer the case. The combination of Teske’s own growth, Wagner’s departure for the NBA and Michigan’s lack of a clear backup at the center position make it an impossibility for the Wolverines to survive for long without the junior center on the court. The only game in which Teske played fewer than 25 minutes since the start of January was at Iowa — where Michigan lost precisely because he played fewer than 25 minutes.
Behind him, the only constant is that there has been no constant. Davis, now a redshirt sophomore has been surpassed by freshman Brandon Johns in the rotation. Johns, who missed Thursday’s win over Minnesota with sickness, has struggled to make a consistent impact. And though freshman Colin Castleton held his own in Johns’ absence, it was the first game all year where he’s gotten in for reasons other than foul trouble or a blowout.
Plain and simple, the Wolverines won’t win on Sunday without Jon Teske. And thus, keeping himself in the game has become an art form for Teske.
“Within the first couple minutes, you can definitely see what the refs are calling,” he went on. “If they’re calling reach-ins, calling fouls, hand-checks, this or that. You kinda see what they’re calling. There’s always guys on the bench always telling me, giving me tips, or if they see something, always willing to talk to me. I’ll listen to them, and so, just really, those first couple minutes are really key.”
The Spartans come into Sunday with depth problems of their own, as center Nick Ward suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand last week and will miss the game. As Beilein is happy to point out though, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins present problems of their own down low.
“They do this great job of grooming the next guy,” Beilein said. “So, Ward’s a really good player … but they just plug in Tillman. … Tillman has more offensive rebounds than Nick Ward. Goins has more offensive rebounds than Nick Ward. So, I think they’re playing really well. I’m sure they’d love to have him, but there’s not this tremendous drop-off inside.”
Much as Tom Izzo will talk about the adjustment Michigan State has to make without Ward — and much as that adjustment is real — the Wolverines refuse to see it as such.
“I don't think it’s much different,” Teske said. “They’re two big bodies, very good players down post. They both run well in transition and you gotta make them force tough twos. And just kinda be there, being a big body down there. And wall up and rebound, try to block shots.”
Complex as life down low can be for Jon Teske, sometimes it’s as simple as that.