With junior Moritz Wagner locked in as the de facto starter at center, it’s “Bull” versus “Big Nasty” for the backup '5’ spot on the Michigan basketball team.
Well, at least according to assistant coach Saddi Washington.
The two nicknames designated by the second-year coach are for redshirt freshman Austin Davis and sophomore Jon Teske, respectively. This year, both of them will look to “embrace that nastiness” and increase their roles from last season, in which Teske played sparsely — often looking uncomfortable on the court — and Davis redshirted.
The loss of DJ Wilson to the NBA has created flexibility in the frontcourt that wasn’t needed much last year — the Wolverines used just two different starting lineups in 2016-17. While Wagner might be taking tip-offs now, he and fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson offer serious defensive question marks that make production from Davis and Teske a necessity. For Michigan coach John Beilein, picking a definitive winner just nine days before the Wolverines’ first exhibition match has been hard to do.
“I would say right now that Jon Teske has probably been better than (Davis) at this point,” Beilein said at the team’s media day on Wednesday. “(Davis is) a guy whose body has really changed. … When he gets to 212 degrees — and he’s boiling — he’s gonna be really good, but he’s gotta get there first.”
Added Davis: “(Beilein’s) expecting a lot from me this year. I know that there’s a big role to fill and minutes to play so I’m looking forward to going out and working hard to earn those minutes. … I’ve worked hard in the weight room being able to move quicker. I feel much more comfortable running.”
When Wagner, Teske or Davis do see time at center, it’s primarily up to Robinson and freshman Isaiah Livers to fill the stretch-four void left by Wilson.
For the 6-foot-8 Robinson, who can space the floor with his offensive prowess, he has challenged himself to fulfill the defensive improvements expected of him in his final year.
“Adapting to (assistant coach Luke) Yaklich’s defensive system, just schematically how he likes to play. … I feel like I’ve made strides in that area,” Robinson said. “He’s been great with helping me guard the ball, moving my legs, being in the right place at the right time.”
While Robinson is an elite outside shooting threat, his smaller frame makes it difficult for him to replicate the two-way production that warranted Wilson’s selection as the No. 17 pick in the draft. A by-committee approach will be needed to accomplish such a tall order. And that’s where Livers comes in.
Michigan’s 2017 Mr. Basketball may have the earliest opportunity to see playing time amongst the three highly-touted freshmen, a product of a thinned-out frontcourt. Livers is listed two inches shorter than Wilson, but displays athleticism resemblant of the now-Milwaukee Buck. Livers already possesses the offensive chops to succeed at the college level, but according to the young player himself, Beilein has almost exclusively stressed defense to the freshman.
“Everybody wants to score but I take it as ‘Hey, a Hall of Fame coach is asking me to take a role,’ ” Livers said. “I’m gonna take that role to be a better player, I know he knows what he’s talking about.
“From watching that (Oregon) game last year, I really loved that team. You remember that free throw when (Wilson) shot it and got his own rebound? It just made me think ‘Dang, I already know what coach (Beilein)’s gonna tell me next year.’ ”
The frontcourt concerns compose only one of a litany of issues facing Michigan in the 2017-18 season, but if this team is anything like Beilein’s previous 10, the kinks will be ironed out with time.