Jon Teske picked up his second foul with 11:42 left in the first half of Michigan’s game against Iowa on Friday.
The Hawkeyes were up 12-11 after the ensuing free throws, and that’s when redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis subbed in for the junior center. The Wolverines went on a 6-0 run immediately afterward.
If that had been the beginning of a trend for Michigan men’s basketball team, the Wolverines would still have one loss, a game clear of anyone else in the Big Ten standings.
But that momentum didn’t continue.
Three minutes later, Iowa ripped off a 13-0 run to go up eight. Two minutes after that, the lead grew to 14, and at the end of the half, Michigan trailed by 13.
Teske had played only one minute, and a mixture of Davis, freshman forward Brandon Johns, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers and even freshman center Colin Castleton — who had played a total of 18 minutes all year — struggled mightily either to contain the Hawkeyes’ size on defense or contribute offensively.
“We hoped it would be better, but this was a bad one to not have (Teske),” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Because he does so many different things. … We do not have this plethora of bigs coming in behind him that have his experience.
“… I can’t say we weren’t ready for it. It’s happened a few times, but the opponent hasn’t been this strong when it did happen.”
Of course, the game’s outcome can’t simply be boiled down to insufficiencies at one position. But the lack of a backup for Teske speaks to a larger problem for the Wolverines.
Michigan has just six players that score more than seven points per game. The next best is sophomore guard Eli Brooks, who averages 2.9 points per game, hardly a trustworthy offensive option.
So when the Wolverines run into foul trouble or cold shooting nights — or if someone in the rotation gets hurt at some point throughout the year — it could present a great deal of trouble.
That manifested Friday, when Teske, Livers, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis and sophomore guard Jordan Poole were all called for two fouls in the first half. Brazdeikis, Poole and junior guard Zavier Simpson were the only players to score for Michigan in that first half. So when two of those three were out, the Wolverines turned to some unlikely sources.
Three freshmen — Castleton, guard David DeJulius and guard Adrien Nunez — got their first meaningful minutes of their careers late in the first 20 minutes of Friday’s game.
They were not nearly enough, as made evident by the score at halftime. And as it turned out, the rest of the offense wasn’t enough for the rest of the night either.
“Basketball game’s a game full of runs,” Simpson said. “They’re gonna make runs, we’re gonna make runs. They just happened to make a big run. Salute to Iowa.”
To be clear, Michigan’s depth issues are not a death sentence by any means. Beilein-coached teams are notorious for fouling less than other teams. And the Wolverines’ six main contributors have proven they can play a ton of minutes, which helps mask some of the problems.
But the issue comes with a team like Iowa. The Hawkeyes rotated several competent big men onto the court and went after Teske, and it worked, because while the backups at all positions struggle to score for Michigan, Teske’s importance is twofold. Teske’s backups not only lack his offensive ability, but they don’t bring the defensive versatility he possesses.
So Iowa’s formula worked like a charm, and while it isn’t one that all teams in the country can employ when the competition gets stiffer, that weakness could come back to bite the Wolverines when it matters most.
Michigan’s two late-season games against Michigan State could be for the Big Ten Championship. The Spartans will undoubtedly run big men Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman at Teske when they meet on Feb. 24. If the Wolverines match up with the likes of Tennessee, Duke or Gonzaga in March, all of those teams have size to spare, too.
And now that the book is out on Michigan and how to stop them, there are two ways this thing could go.
The first is that Beilein transforms his weaknesses into strengths once again. Last year, defenses that switched ball screens gave the Wolverines fits, but by the end of the season, Michigan was feasting on teams that did just that.
Maybe this season, Davis, Johns or Brooks will find their respective grooves and turn their offense into the buzzsaw everyone witnessed against North Carolina and Villanova.
Or maybe the Wolverines’ lack of depth is their fatal flaw. Maybe what happened Friday was less a mirage and more a preview of what’s to come.
Maybe we’ll look back on Friday night and remember when Iowa found the end of a proverbial thread and the rest of Michigan’s season began to unravel.