When Frank Martin got to Crisler Center for South Carolina’s practice on Friday, he saw junior guard Zavier Simpson and pulled him aside.
“Listen, I was watching the film from two years ago,” the Gamecocks’ coach recalled saying. “You and (Jon Teske) were like two kids. … Now, I’m watching you guys play. You guys are like, unbelievable how much better you guys are and how different you look.”
Two years ago, as the Michigan men’s basketball team found itself on an improbable run to the Sweet 16, Simpson and Teske — both freshmen — largely rode the bench. The latter played all of three minutes per game, a 7-foot-1 kid whose basketball acumen could be boiled down to 85 inches.
Even last season, as Teske stepped into a role backing up Moritz Wagner, he grew noticeably, but that archetype remained, in large part, correct.
Teske affected shots at the rim, threw down the occasional lob and usually managed to keep the Wolverines afloat when Wagner was sitting. Questions as to whether he could replace the since-departed German in full remained.
Just over a month into this season, Teske has put those questions to rest.
Michigan might be better off with Teske starting instead of Wagner. The junior hasn’t just affected shots at the rim, but all over the court. He has turned into an example that strength coach Jon Sanderson will hold up for every big-man recruit that walks through the Wolverines’ door for his strength and athleticism improvements.
Toward the end of the first half Saturday, with the Gamecocks still hanging around, Teske charged through an open lane to put back a miss from Simpson. Seconds later, he found himself on the perimeter, defending South Carolina’s Maik Kotsar. He stayed in front of the big man on a drive, then blocked his shoot like a dad defending his kid in a driveway.
That’s a sequence Teske might have been capable of doing once in a blue moon last year. Now, it’s the norm.
All told, he finished Saturday with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, to go with nine rebounds and three blocks over 29 minutes. That’s more than he played in any single game last year. It’s also the fourth time he’s hit the 29-minute benchmark this year.
That, in part, is a matter of necessity. Michigan has yet to find a viable backup at the ‘5,’ with redshirt sophomore Austin Davis struggling and freshman Brandon Johns tied to the bench.
More importantly, it’s a matter of growth. Wagner wasn’t the only reason Teske never played 30 minutes in a game last year. Teske simply wasn’t capable of doing so, even when Wagner was hurt.
After Saturday’s win, the 10th straight to start the season for the Wolverines, sophomore guard Jordan Poole was asked whether he thought there would be a transition period in the wake of last season’s Final Four run. He didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“No,” Poole said. “Only because, where has Michigan dropped off in the last couple years? Guys leave all the time. These coaches do a really good job preparing the next guy, next man up. That’s our mentality. And being able to have guys step into the role, it’s just normal. Of course you got a Final Four run, we had guys who left for the NBA. But we’ve been practicing against those guys all last year. I feel like they set us up for success.”
No player exemplifies that more than Jon Teske.
“I think it’s just the type of kids (Michigan coach John Beilein) recruits,” Teske said. “He knows he can develop them into good players after a couple seasons if kids are willing to work hard, stay here in the summer and work on their game.
“I think that’s what happened to me.”