Assessing the state of Michigan’s frontcourt in Livers’ absence

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 7:03pm

Sophomore forward Colin Castleton is averaging just two points per game in the last six games.

Sophomore forward Colin Castleton is averaging just two points per game in the last six games. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

After the Michigan men’s basketball team lost to Minnesota on Sunday, Juwan Howard fielded the same questions that surfaced after Thursday’s double-overtime win over Purdue.

On each occasion, the questions were rooted in the consistent success opposing Big Ten post players have sustained against the Wolverines’ interior defense. This time, though, the press conference took on a much different tone.

Reclining at the Crisler Center podium after Michigan’s victory over the Boilermakers, Howard was repeatedly asked about Purdue forward Trevion Williams’ 36 points and 20 rebounds. He attributed it to his stubbornness, even flashing a grin at one point. 

But after Gophers’ center Daniel Oturu’s 30 points propelled Minnesota past the Wolverines on Sunday, there was no writing it off. And there was certainly no grinning.

For Michigan’s frontcourt, this isn’t a new problem. If anything, it’s becoming run of the mill. Oturu became the third Big Ten center to set a new career-high scoring total against the Wolverines this season, joining Williams and Iowa’s Luka Garza.

At the core of Michigan’s problem is Howard’s refusal to double-team opposing centers in the low post — a strategy that leaves senior center Jon Teske with no help defense. 

“The coaching (is) stubborn, not bringing a double-team,” Howard said on Thursday. “I know Jon is like, ‘Well, can I get some help, too?’ … But at the end of the day, (Williams’) 36 points, those were on me — they weren’t on Jon Teske. He scored those on me.”

Entering this season, it seemed as though Michigan’s frontcourt had the potential to be its strong suit. Given Howard’s reputation for developing big men, it seemed safe to predict Teske would build off a productive junior season and sophomores Colin Castleton and Brandon Johns Jr. would take the next step.

As a unit, that hasn’t happened on the defensive end. Opposing Big Ten post players — Williams, Oturu, Garza, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn — are averaging a staggering 29.8 points on 55 percent shooting against the Wolverines.

Yet from an individual standpoint, Teske and Johns have taken a step forward under Howard’s tutelage. Teske’s 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game both lead the team, while his expanded post repertoire has allowed him to become a reliable source of offense. In Johns’ moments of clear confidence, he’s shown flashes of high-level play against the Hawkeyes, Spartans and Oregon. And despite Howard’s best efforts, Johns’ biggest pitfall remains his fluctuating confidence.

With Castleton averaging just 2.0 points on 21 percent shooting over the last six games, an opportunity has presented itself for senior center Austin Davis — who began the season as an afterthought — to crack the rotation. In the same span, Davis is averaging 5.8 points on a 65-percent clip. But Davis’ drawback remains his shaky defense, which underscores the team’s overall problem guarding the interior.

The power forward position, too, has been uncertain since junior Isaiah Livers sustained a groin injury on Dec. 21 and was ruled out indefinitely. This has caused Howard to tinker with a small-ball lineup featuring freshman wing Franz Wagner at the ‘4.’

With Livers on the shelf, Michigan has badly missed a vital piece of its offense. His conference-best 50-percent clip from beyond the arc preserves the necessary spacing for a formidable pick-and-roll. With Livers on the floor, defenses can’t afford to help off the perimeter when the ball-handler turns the corner, which is a major reason why the Wolverines are so successful out of the pick-and-roll.

Michigan has shot below 40 percent from beyond the arc in all four games since Livers’ injury. When Howard was asked about Livers’ return date on Sunday, he dodged the question. For now, replacing him with Wagner — who can defend multiple positions and score at each level — attempts to combat that problem without overhauling the team’s offensive identity.

“That group is very dynamic,” Howard said. “They have five skill guys. Franz is a very skillful guy that can put the ball on the floor and shoot with good length.”

Against Purdue, Howard turned to that lineup for the final nine minutes of regulation and the entirety of both overtime periods. Three days later, it was on the floor for crunch time minutes in Minneapolis.

While Wagner (34.5 percent) poses more of a 3-point shooting threat than Johns (27.3 percent), neither open driving lanes by occupying off-ball defenders as well as Livers. As a result, off-ball defenders can leave them to help stop the pick-and-roll.

Perhaps Livers’ return will alleviate some of the spacing issues facing Michigan’s frontcourt. Until then, it remains uncertain whether Howard will be grinning at the podium going forward.