Michigan hopes regular-season adversity can shape deep March run
Juwan Howard’s first regular season as the Michigan men’s basketball coach featured no shortage of adversity.
Bad news began trickling in before the Wolverines even took the court for the first time in November. Less than two weeks before the season tipped off, freshman wing Franz Wagner fractured his wrist in practice.
The injury didn’t require surgery, but it forced him to miss Michigan’s first four games. Even when he joined the lineup, the lingering effects on his shooting wrist were evident in his 29-percent 3-point shooting clip through mid-February.
The recovery period was particularly difficult for Wagner, who was simultaneously trying to adapt to the American college level after spending last season with German club Alba Berlin.
“The injury in October set him back with his stroke,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said on Feb. 22. “I think he’s a purer shooter than we’re seeing.”
Since then, Wagner has found his jump shot. He’s shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc over the Wolverines’ last five games — a mark that has allowed him to become the team’s leading scorer over the same stretch.
But as Michigan worked through the adversity of Wagner’s injury, a second starter went down. Junior forward Isaiah Livers missed six games after landing awkwardly following a dunk attempt against Presbyterian on Dec. 21, and when he returned a month later, he reaggravated his groin on a near-identical play. His absence stretched over the Wolverines’ next three games before an ankle injury forced him to sit out a fourth.
Michigan has lost six of 10 games against conference opponents without a healthy Livers.
“At some point, every team is going to go through (adversity),” Howard said Sunday. “It happened to us. I think we’ve learned a lot, and I think we’ve gotten better through the adversity. We’re going to forge ahead. … (I’m) praying to the basketball gods that we’ll continue to have good health.”
Adversity has taken forms besides injury, particularly at inopportune moments. Howard handed senior point guard Zavier Simpson a one-game suspension in January following a 3 a.m. traffic incident on Jan. 26. In late-December, an illness held sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. out of a non-conference tune-up.
Most recently, junior guard Eli Brooks’s broken nose kept him out of last week’s loss to Wisconsin. Without their ace perimeter defender, the Wolverines surrendered a season-worst 11 3-pointers. Before returning three days later, he had to overcome a sinus infection he claimed was even more painful than the fractured nose itself.
The only starter to suit up for every game of the regular season was senior center Jon Teske. The sum of the adversity was a 10-10 Big Ten record and a bottom-half finish in the conference standings.
“Most definitely not what we wanted,” sophomore guard David DeJulius said Sunday. “And I think that goes back to the history of Michigan basketball, especially with the last few years, just with how much success they’ve had. We just talked about how even the (2018) national championship team that won the Big Ten Tournament, they didn’t win the regular season, so now everyone’s zero-and-zero.
“We just gotta come out there with a new-season mindset.”
With the regular season now in the books, Michigan’s postseason mindset is bolstered by the experience of regular-season adversity. It knows what it’s like to play short-handed and lose, and it knows what it’s like to win with everyone in the fold.
The Wolverines grew from the adversity, learning about themselves in moments that otherwise would’ve never presented themselves. Even through a miserable January that saw Michigan drop five consecutive games for the first time since 2015, young players such as Johns and DeJulius proved themselves as viable rotational pieces.
And in the postseason, the silver lining of regular-season roadblocks could make all the difference.