At the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first media availability of the season, John Beilein told reporters that his team needed “two or three” freshmen to work their way into a rotation depleted by graduation and NBA departures. Forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns came in as highly-touted four-star recruits, widely expected to contribute immediately, but Beilein would only commit to Brazdeikis.
“We’ve only got seven guys returning, we’re gonna have a nine or ten man rotation,” Beilein said at the time. “Two or three of those guys gotta find their way into that lineup.”
Three weeks later, he has settled on guard David DeJulius to join Brazdeikis and Johns in the rotation.
The reasons they — and not guard Adrien Nunez or center Colin Castleton — have earned Beilein’s trust are strength and defense, which he labels as the two factors that keep most freshmen off the court.
Through three weeks of practice, defense has been the biggest bright spot for the Wolverines. It’s why their practices are absent of players running stairs at the top of the Crisler Center or doing extra sprints afterwards.
In contrast to early last season, when then-freshman guard Jordan Poole’s defensive struggles kept him off the floor, this year’s freshmen have been at the center of Michigan’s defensive emphasis.
“They have a will to get better … it comes little bit by little bit with every kid,” Beilein said. “And some positions are harder. Colin Castleton’s man is gonna set screens, he doesn’t have to worry about zoning up as much. David’s got everything, Brandon’s trying to play two positions (power forward and center).”
“… Here’s the one thing they know more than anything else: If you don’t play defense, you’re not gonna play.”
Brazdeikis, DeJulius, and Johns’ physical readiness has also separated them from Nunez and Castleton.
Castleton has added 16 pounds since reporting to Ann Arbor at 210 but still hasn’t fully grown into his 6-foot-10 body. In contrast, the Wolverines’ strength staff has already forced Brazdeikis to stop bench pressing because he’s too muscular.
“Their bodies are more ready than the other two right now,” Beilein said. “ … Iggy is older than (sophomore) Jordan Poole so his body is ready. Brandon’s body is — he’s got a great body but he’s got to get stronger within that body. And then David is just like a bulldog, he’s got a great trunk to him, he’s got a great core to him. So those guys are gonna be ready.”
After losing production from last season at all five spots on the floor, Johns and Brazdeikis’ versatility adds to their value off the bench.
Beilein discussed Brazdeikis’ ability to play at the ‘2’ through ‘4’ last month, while he expects Johns to get time at power forward and center behind sophomore Isaiah Livers and junior Jon Teske, respectively.
“Brandon’s gonna have to learn the ‘4’ and ‘5,’ alright,” Beilein said. “Breaking news, he’s gonna have to learn those two positions.
“… For Brandon to sit there and watch Isaiah and Iggy play at the ‘4’ wouldn’t make sense.”
That seemingly leaves Nunez and Castleton out of Beilein’s plans early in the season. But when asked about the possibility of either redshirting, Beilein would only say that he had informed all freshmen that they will lose their redshirt eligibility as soon as they enter a game.
That could be important information for Nunez and Castleton. For the other three, it will likely become irrelevant on opening night.
“They’re really hard working, and they’re really good kids,” Beilein said. “They are growing every day, and some days there are giant leaps and some days there are steps backwards. But I love coaching them.”