WEST LAFAYETTE — NCAA Tournament games aren’t usually the time to experiment — unless you’re the Michigan men’s basketball team.
In Saturday’s lopsided win over sixteen-seed Texas Southern, Michigan coach Juwan Howard did just that, playing freshmen Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams a combined 19 minutes. Jackson, who hadn’t hit a 3-pointer all season, knocked down two in the first half, while Williams finished with four points, three rebounds and three assists.
While not eye-popping statistical contributions, both Jackson and Williams have played sparingly throughout the season and rarely, if ever, together. Against the Tigers though, they looked comfortable on the biggest stage of their young careers.
“(Howard) always preaches ‘Next man up mentality’ and ‘Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready,’ ” senior guard Mike Smith said. “And they came out there and did a tremendous job out there to help us.”
Despite not appearing in the Wolverines’ two Big Ten Tournament games, Jackson checked in just six minutes into the game. Williams wasn’t far behind, entering the game at the 9:17 minute mark of the first half after senior wing Chaundee Brown Jr. picked up two fouls.
Howard’s decision to put Jackson and Williams into the game was likely made easier by the fact that Michigan had already opened up a double-digit lead. And without starting senior wing Isaiah Livers out for the foreseeable future with a stress fracture in his foot, the Wolverines’ rotation will be stretched in the coming weeks. When better to acclimate freshmen to the high-stakes atmosphere of the Tournament than with his team in full control?
“It was great, man,” Howard said. “All hands on deck. … Zeb and Terrance were ready to go. And they gave us a really big spark coming off the bench.”
While Williams has had moments throughout the season — namely a 10-point performance against UCF in December and a six-rebound outing against Northwestern — Jackson has struggled to make an impact in Michigan’s backcourt rotation. Saturday arguably marked the first time all season that Jackson looked confident on the court — and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Every day before practice when I’m walking past the weight room and there’s a window, he’s always the first guy in the gym,” Howard said. “It says a lot about his character, about his love of the game and his attitude. Zeb has not walked in our building one time and had a session of ‘me me me, I I I’ or asked anyone to feel sorry for him. I knew that if I put him in, he’s gonna be able to provide, didn’t know the type of scoring he was gonna do. … But it’s not about the point of making shots, just playing very solid basketball.”
Although Jackson missed two 3-point attempts in the second half, he held his own in relief of Smith and senior guard Eli Brooks. Williams, in energetic fashion, was a spark plug off the bench, diving on the floor and crashing the offensive glass.
They may have only played 19 minutes, and it may have come against a sixteen-seed, but the experience could prove invaluable going forward.
“That just builds confidence,” Smith said. “Your confidence comes from when you see the ball go in or when you do something good, you start to get confident in that area of the game and that’s gonna help them down the stretch especially next game when their name is called.”