With the Michigan men’s basketball team receiving a bye in the Big Ten’s first week of action, the long break gave coach John Beilein the opportunity to let his players go home for a few days.
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner went all the way to Germany, redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson went back to California and everyone else went somewhere in between.
“We practiced pretty hard in October and November getting ready for the season,” Beilein said. “So the time was just, ‘Alright, let’s take a break.’ Because once we play at Iowa, I think there might be one more break later in the year. Other than that, we’re playing two games a week, so we (told the players to) get some rest.
But that doesn’t mean the Wolverines completely checked out of basketball. They watched Nebraska end Indiana’s 26-game win streak at home, and they watched Michigan State beat Minnesota in overtime from their respective households.
“We just saw a lot of teams that weren’t expected to win were all winning,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr.
Now, Michigan will get its first crack at a Big Ten opponent when it hits the road to face Iowa on New Year’s Day.
It will be the Wolverines’ first game in 10 days, and Beilein emphasized that preparation was a little bit different than it usually is because of the break.
“The balance is how do we practice this week without overtraining and how do we get them in shape again,” Beilein said. “There is some effect there, and there is some concern about that. We’ll really try to give them a lot of rest on (Saturday).”
The last time Michigan played was back on Dec. 22 in Ann Arbor, when the Wolverines narrowly beat Furman, 68-62.
Walton and senior guard Zak Irvin finished with 13 and 16 points, respectively, and Walton hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left in the game to seal Michigan’s six-point victory.
Leading the way for the Wolverines, though, was Wagner, who finished with 18 points and six rebounds.
“I watched the Furman game quite a lot (over the break) just to firm up some things,” Beilein said. “It was a game that we didn’t play our best, so credit to Furman, but we didn’t execute very well on offense, and it showed with our totals in points.”
Iowa will be a much different test. Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery’s team boasts a top-20 scorer in the country in guard Peter Jok, who averages 21.1 points per game.
But Jok hasn’t had a lot of help, as he attempts about 36 percent of Iowa’s shots. Jok also leads the team in rebounding, averaging 6.1 rebounds per game.
“(Jok) reminds me so much of Tim Hardaway Jr. in that he can get his shot anytime he wants to,” Beilein said. “He’s just an exceptional talent. He drives the ball, he gets to the foul line, and so he’s just a big challenge.
“Last year, we cut their lead to five or six late with not much left, and he hit two daggers against us. He’s just really an exceptional player and as good a player in the league.”
Outside of Jok, the Hawkeyes are a young team. They start two freshmen in guard Jordan Bohannon and forward Cordell Pemsl, and another freshman, forward Tyler Cook, also started for Iowa before he went down with an injury. Cook recently returned to play in the Hawkeyes’ 89-67 Big Ten opening loss at Purdue on Wednesday.
The three freshmen represent Iowa’s second, third and fourth leading scorers after Jok with 13.1, 10.2 and 8.5 points per game, respectively.
But the key for the Wolverines will be shutting down Jok inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where Beilein hasn’t won since 2011.
“We’ll have our hands full,” Beilein said. “It has not been a friendly place for us whether we won a Big Ten championship or went to the final two. Against) Iowa at their place, we have not played well.”
After playing well in the non-conference portion of its schedule, Michigan has a chance to start off its conference slate on the right foot with a win at Iowa in what will be a whirlwind of a Big Ten season.