Midway through the second half of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season opener, Duncan Robinson entered the game for the Wolverines.
One minute and 18 seconds later, the redshirt sophomore guard was back on the bench.
The 3-point specialist wasn’t injured, he wasn’t tired, and he didn’t do anything wrong that showed up in the post-game box score. What Robinson had done, though, was completely miss his defensive assignment, and that was enough for Michigan coach John Beilein to yank him from the game in favor of redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson.
Beilein’s quick hook made several appearances throughout the Wolverines’ first two contests of the season against Northern Michigan and Elon, with inexperienced players like Robinson and Wilson often on the receiving end.
Through the first two games, Michigan’s rotation has been 12 players deep. And though Beilein has said it won’t stay that way, there is no room for individual error on a team with that much depth. With so many players available, Beilein has had the luxury of trying every lineup imaginable against the team’s lackluster early opponents, and he has no reason to leave struggling players on the floor.
“We’re just trying to feel out what’s best for us,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “This year is a year of accountability, so at any moment, you make a mistake, a guy can come in and replace you. (You have to) do what you need to be doing.”
Walton — who posted 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the victory over Elon — and preseason All-Big Ten senior guard Caris LeVert likely won’t be in danger of losing playing time, but just about everyone else on the roster is being constantly evaluated, both in games and in practice.
“Every day, we’ve been keeping charts,” Beilein said. “We know who’s won every single game (in practice). … We’ve been on that. There’s been times though, still, that I thought our progress has been really slow — way too slow. We’ve been holding everybody accountable. We’ve had subs ready to come (in), but our learning curve’s got to increase.”
Last season, this kind of lesson in accountability wasn’t possible. With Walton and LeVert out with injuries, freshman guards Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were forced into starting roles knowing full well there were few others behind them on the depth chart. Freshman mistakes on the court — from blown defensive coverage to poor shot selection — were unavoidable and often excused.
But now, Beilein has the ability to reward, punish and experiment at will, and that fact is readily apparent in the number of lineup combinations he has thrown on the court.
The ‘5’ position has been a revolving door. Though junior Mark Donnal has started both games, Wilson, sophomore Ricky Doyle and freshman Moritz Wagner have seen plenty of action. And at one point against Elon, the Wolverines fielded an atypical lineup of Walton, Abdur-Rahkman, junior forward Zak Irvin, Robinson and Wilson.
“The different types of rotations, I don’t think it’s really throwing any guys off, it’s just — we’re so versatile,” Walton said. “We’ve got guys that can play left side, backcourt and the ‘5,’ so I think it’s a luxury to have so many guys that can play so many positions.”
Though players like Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman have played meaningful minutes early in their careers, Beilein now faces the challenge of getting them ready to play when expectations are higher. With LeVert and Walton fully healthy, the Wolverines have lofty goals to accomplish.
“We can’t just keep bumping our head on the ceiling,” Beilein said. “We’ve got to push through that, and several of our guys haven’t been able to do that.”