The clock was ticking down, second by second, signaling the end of a top-10 slugfest between No. 5 Michigan and No. 10 Oregon on Saturday.
Senior guard Zavier Simpson stood with the ball in both hands, glaring down his lane to the basket. With little off-ball movement and no open shooters, Simpson took off down the lane and put up what he hoped to be the game-winning shot. It clanged off the backboard and the heroics of the day fell into the lap of sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr.
Johns leaped into the air to try to tip the board — as he had all game — and save the day. Overzealously slapping the ball just wide of the hoop, Johns’ application to be the hero was rejected and the Wolverines fell to the Ducks, 71-70, in overtime.
Johns’ efforts in the final play are entirely indicative of his play throughout the game, and large parts of the season, for Michigan. The sophomore consistently provided energy to the Wolverines, seemingly playing with a hunger and confidence completely absent from his 6-foot-8 frame just a year prior.
In short, this season, Johns has been everything he wasn’t under former coach John Beilein.
The forward has been a bloodhound for offensive rebounds — extending possessions long thought lost to the casual observer. Notching four in the game, and a total of nine rebounds, Johns was everywhere down low and was ferocious in collecting the ball.
“My instincts are to go to the basket, no matter who’s on me, who’s trying to box me out, I’m gonna get to the basket, no matter what,” Johns said. “So, I’m not letting anybody stop me getting to the basket. I’m gonna grab the rebound.”
Adding even more elements to his game, Johns has shown confidence in his shot selection and takes to the basket and demonstrated growth on defense, especially at the ‘5’ position.
Against Oregon, Michigan coach Juwan Howard knew the defensive gameplan was going to have to change to limit the Ducks’ prolific guard play and elite shooting ability. The Wolverines were going to have to go small.
Luckily for Howard, Johns was just the man to fill that role. Coming in to play the ‘5’ — an idea initially tested by Beilein to deeply disappointing results — Johns posted a team-best plus/minus rating of plus-10 and provided an offensive and defensive spark that was utterly missing from the first half.
Johns made his presence felt. In the middle of the second half, Oregon guard Antohny Mathis drove to the basket thinking he could sneak a finger roll past the Michigan defense. Much to his chagrin, Johns was waiting patiently in the post and when Mathis put his ball up, swatted the soul out of the guard’s attempt.
The crowd at Crisler Center rained praise on the attempt while Johns stood over Mathis, flexing on the guard the whole way.
“It was just an energy giver right there,” Johns said. “I thought it brought a lot of energy. I’m trying to bring a lot of energy to my team, no matter what the circumstances, so I thought that was a big play, for sure.”
But there’s still work to do.
The young forward has yet to be truly effective outside the confines of the Crisler Center and has made some mistakes during his time on the floor. A missed tip-in shot to lose a hard-fought overtime victory is one thing — and easily forgivable — but missing two free throws in the middle of that overtime period, as Johns did, is another.
But this is the natural evolution of any player — particularly one who suffered as debilitating a crisis of confidence as Johns did last season. Now, the Wolverines should be happy with the sophomore’s play and look to build on his skillset as the season progresses.
“Brandon gave us some good minutes. It’s always like the, ‘Next man up,’ mentality,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Stay ready. If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready, and that’s how Brandon and all our players approach the game. And you just gotta know when your name is called, and Brandon delivered today.”