Brandon Johns makes his introduction
For a minute there, Brandon Johns felt like he was in high school again.
With seven minutes left in the second half, Johns gathered a pass from junior point guard Zavier Simpson and tried a left-handed layup off the glass. It bounced off the rim, but Johns popped straight back up over everybody and tipped the ball into the cylinder.
On Michigan’s next possession, Johns slipped a screen, caught Simpson’s pass all alone in the post and pummeled the ball through the net with his right arm.
Not enough? Twelve seconds later, the freshman forward — he of just 10 games of college basketball — leapt up to challenge Indiana forward Juwan Morgan at the rim and stuffed the All-Big Ten senior. What was left standing of Crisler Center after Johns’ dunk was set ablaze.
“It reminded me a lot of East Lansing (in high school),” Johns said. “Different levels, but it's great to be out here.”
That 56-second sequence was a callback to Johns’ high-flying, highlight-reel high school career, during which he scored 28.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game as a senior.
But in that same sequence, Johns arrived on the big stage.
His arrival was both long-anticipated and sudden. Johns rode the bench for most of the Wolverines’ first 14 games as he acclimated to the college game. But for a Michigan team that struggled to find stability backing up junior Jon Teske, the 6-foot-8 Johns had raw athletic ability that made him a tantalizing prospect; a perfect complement to the 7-foot-1 Teske at the ‘5’.
This week, Johns got the break he needed.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers missed Thursday’s game against Penn State due to back spasms, and after feeling less than 100 percent in practice and warmups over the weekend, was listed as doubtful minutes before tipoff Sunday, his absence opening up an opportunity in the Wolverines’ small-ball lineup. And just over midway through the first half, redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis, Teske’s primary backup, committed his second foul.
“It was the need,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He's making progress in practice, but we've seen that a few times in practice. … That was a matter of foul trouble by Austin, foul trouble by Jon and Brandon getting in there.”
Added Johns: “I just knew I had to be ready, know everything, defense, offense, just in case he does call my name, if somebody gets in foul trouble I can come out and contribute.”
He did just that, going straight to work inside and inhaling rebounds — four of them in less than three minutes. In 13 minutes against the Hoosiers, he would finish with a team-high eight of them, along with eight points and a block.
“That's one thing I've really been focusing on since I got here is just rebounding, play with a high motor,” Johns said. “I think rebounding was like what everyone thought the main thing that I could do, and if anything else followed up, it's okay.”
In the second half, the rest of Johns’ game materialized in full force.
Just over six minutes into the half, Davis was sent to the bench for good after hacking Morgan; his fourth foul in as many minutes. With Teske on the bench with three and Indiana climbing back into the contest after trailing by as much as 17, the weight of the Wolverines’ perfect start came to rest on the shoulders of the callow East Lansing High School product.
The Hoosiers had cut the lead to 55-46 when redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews surged into the lane, his runner missing high off the backboard. Johns saw it, rocketed off the ground and powered home the rebound.
Turns out, that impressive display of athleticism was only the appetizer.
Less than two hours before his rejection of Morgan, it wasn’t even a sure thing Johns would play. Now, against a nationally-ranked opponent, in front of a national TV audience, one of the most unlikely of players had taken complete control.
“I did not (see Johns’ performance coming), but I do know that he is capable,” Matthews said. “Injuries allow some people to step up and make the most of the occasion. He definitely had a big game, big impact for us.”
After the game, Beilein noted that Johns had been too passive in practice on occasion. The next step in Johns’ development, according to Beilein, is bringing the same energy he showed on Sunday more consistently.
“We'll see how he does in the next two days,” Beilein said. “But there's an argument for him to be the first big man off the bench after how he played today.
“... Just do this in practice and do this in games. He would tell you himself. We played four-on-four the other day, full-court, four-on-four, no rules, he was a non-factor in the game. He's good, he's good. He's got to be a factor in these games. … Playing harder, playing smarter, just embracing the contact is all (he needs) to do.
“I love the kid. He's going to be a really good player.”
John’s breakout showing didn’t end when the final buzzer sounded. Nor did it end when he led the Wolverines in singing “The Victors” in the locker room.
As he left the Crisler Center media room and a swarm of reporters behind, a man in a Michigan sweater came up to him with a five-word declaration.
“Welcome to regular playing time.”