On Wednesday, the Michigan men’s basketball team will take the court against Bowling Green for its first game in nearly nine months.
As of Monday morning, the Wolverines have yet to decide on a starting lineup.
“We still have time for that,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said during a Zoom call with reporters on Monday. “Not sure what the rotation is gonna look like at this time, gonna keep growing. And that’s why Monday and Tuesday are gonna be some really good practices to prepare for Bowling Green and see what gives us the best chance to win.”
Entering the season, Michigan has two surefire starters in senior forward Isaiah Livers and sophomore forward Franz Wagner. The other three spots, though, are largely up for grabs.
On Friday, the Wolverines ran a 40-minute, five-on-five scrimmage, which enabled the coaching staff to evaluate the players in a more traditional game setting. One of the players to catch Howard’s attention was junior forward Brandon Johns Jr., who contributed 14 points and 7 rebounds.
“Played very well in the scrimmage (and) we’re gonna need his contributions, both sides of the floor, offense and defense,” Howard said. “With his athleticism, he’s a guy that is capable of guarding ‘2’ through ‘5,’ with his shooting on the floor, and also his back to the basket game which has grown a lot, we’ve spent a lot of time developing. We’re gonna lean on him a lot. We’re gonna need his production.”
This offseason, Johns has been mostly lost in the shuffle amid talk of Livers, Wagner and senior forward Chaundee Brown. With a logjam at forward, if Johns is going to receive significant minutes this season, they will likely come as a small-ball center.
It’s a role that Johns played in spurts last year, to varying degrees of success. At 6-foot-8, Johns possesses the requisite height and athleticism to compete in the paint. Backing up the starter at center — presumably either senior Austin Davis or freshman Hunter Dickinson — Johns brings a different skillset to the table.
“He’s very versatile,” Howard said. “It’s great to be able to utilize him at the ‘4’ or the ‘5’ spot. He’s gonna be a guy that we can lean on at that position on the depth chart.
“Yes, (Davis) and (Dickinson) are the first two guys that we give a nod to at that position, but in basketball, the game has evolved a lot where you can see teams play a ‘5’ that is 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-6. And give credit to (the) Golden State Warriors, they’ve helped change the game a lot. Draymond (Green) has perfected that position very well.”
While a small-ball lineup seems to be in the fold for Michigan, so too is going big. So far in practice, the Wolverines have experimented with the 6-foot-5 Brown playing alongside the 6-foot-7 Livers and 6-foot-9 Wagner, creating an imposing trio of wing players.
“I’ve seen a lot of good things with that lineup,” Howard said. “All three are very long. Yes, Franz and Isaiah are a lot taller, a lot bigger than Chaundee, but Chaundee’s toughness, aggressiveness, defensively, he causes a lot of problems for his opponents. We’re gonna go to that lineup at times and I expect that lineup, there’s gonna be some really good production.”
In three seasons at Wake Forest, Brown predominantly played the ‘3’ and the ‘4,’ conceding three inches in height to battle in the post. Over the offseason, he placed a concerted effort on improving his ball-handling and decision making, with an eye toward more of a perimeter-oriented role. While Howard wouldn’t fully tip his hand, it seems like such may be coming to fruition.
Regardless of who rounds out the starting five alongside Livers and Wagner, it’s clear that the Wolverines have an abundance of options. Last season, Michigan learned the importance of depth when Livers missed ten games to groin and ankle injuries.
“We got a chance to see… how challenging it was to compete night in and night out in the Big Ten,” Howard said. “We expect anything and everything this year to be thrown our way, we will not be surprised. But at the same token, we will not make excuses for ourselves. We will go out there and compete.
“I love the fact that we have a very good roster and our depth chart is pretty darn good too.”
In a season certain to be hampered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, depth becomes all the more important. Beginning on Wednesday, Howard’s optimism surrounding this year’s roster will be put to the test.