NEW YORK CITY, NY — Nearly every time Jon Teske stepped on to the court Thursday, it was to a chorus of boos.
It isn’t that the sophomore forward is a hated villain, but junior forward Moritz Wagner kept getting called for fouls.
The calls, at least in the eyes of the Madison Square Garden crowd, were questionable.
But whether or not the fouls were fouls was beside the point. Wagner spent most of the game against Iowa in foul trouble on the bench — playing just 16 minutes.
He came into the game averaging 3.5 points per game, 3.6 rebounds per game and, perhaps most importantly, just 12.8 minutes per game. His two starts this year came against Detroit Mercy and Alabama A&M, when Wagner was out with an injury. He doesn’t possess Wagner’s offensive skill, and he’s not going to stick his tongue out or wave his arms in the air after a big play.
Simply put, Teske isn’t the Wolverines’ first option at center.
“He hasn’t been in those situations a whole lot in his career,” Wagner said. In Michigan’s opening game of the Big Ten Tournament, that was putting it mildly.
With 4:37 left in the game, though, when Wagner fouled out after being called for an illegal screen, in came Teske.
The sophomore played nearly the rest of the Wolverines’ 77-71, overtime victory — only subbing out for a better free-throw shooter late in overtime. He finished with just three points but corralled a team-high nine rebounds in his 28 minutes.
Teske acknowledged after the game that they were probably the biggest minutes he’s ever played.
“Yeah one of them,” he said through a smile. “But I’m comfortable doing that — backing up Moe — just going out there and playing my game to help the team win.”
It isn’t like Teske was suddenly ready for the situation. His improvement has been incremental, and at times, he’s flashed the potential of being a good, starting center somewhere down the road.
Just ask redshirt freshman forward Austin Davis, who faces Teske regularly in practice.
“Jon’s done a great job,” Davis said. “He’s become a lot more aggressive on the offensive and defensive end. He’s just been solid throughout, defensively. So you know you can always count on him for that. … But, I mean, he’s just really solid. He doesn’t go for a bunch of fakes or stuff like that. He just plays really solid, so it’s hard to play against that.”
Michigan coach John Beilein sees Teske’s growth in a different light. He recognizes the big man has come a long way, but he also sees what he wants Teske to become.
When asked about Teske after the game, Beilein quickly shifted from what he did well Thursday to what he wants him to get better at down the road.
“His nine rebounds, I think, were really huge for us,” Beilein said. “And he had a couple of blocks where he came off, and those were difference-makers for us. I’m hard on Jon, because Jon plays very comfortable. I’m trying to get him to play more uncomfortable — get a better motor. And he can do that. He really has a chance here, but he’s got to continue to get better at everything he does. Whether it’s motor, whether it’s shooting. All these things he can be better at. That’s the whole project for him going forward.”
Maybe that’s the most encouraging sign for Teske. With his ceiling still unknown, he showed Thursday that, at the very least, his floor is rising.
Teske didn’t blow people away with his shooting or athleticism. But at the same time, Iowa didn’t pick him apart like it might have picked apart a typical backup center.
If you’d like to use Davis’ words, he played “really solid.” If you’d like to use Teske’s, he just played “(his) game.”
No matter what you call it, Teske did what he had to.
Because of that, at least in part, the Wolverines will play again tomorrow.