This past Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team could again call Crisler Center home.
For the first time since Jan. 24, when the University placed all athletic programs on a two-week pause due to concerns over the novel B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant, the Wolverines congregated as one. Senior forward Isaiah Livers said it felt like a summer practice. Michigan coach Juwan Howard likened the experience to the first day of school.
“Toughest part was not being able to touch a basketball,” Howard said on a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “Not being able to see our players, to hug them, to have laughs, to smell the sweat and feel the sweat when we all embrace each other. … It was beautiful to get back and have a workout.”
The honeymoon phase, though, proved to be short-lived. The reality — that this was not June, or August, but rather Feb. 7 — quickly set in. Big Ten competition is in full swing, and the stretch-run looms around the corner. On paper, Michigan’s toughest portion of the schedule is ahead, with four games against ranked teams impending. For two weeks, the rest of the conference played as the Wolverines sat home and watched.
There’s no easing in with weeks of practices or non-conference cakewalks. This is diving head-first into the deep end.
And Sunday’s practice, initial excitement aside, revealed just how far Michigan has to go to return to the level it had been playing at.
“Well there were some turnovers being made,” Howard said of the first practice. “Some excessive fouling. Some wobbly legs. All that is expected when you haven’t been able to work out, play basketball, been sitting in your apartments, studying, having Zoom calls with professors and tutors, haven’t been able to get in the gym. When you have a layoff like that, you’re gonna have some rust. Gonna be winded.”
For two weeks, the Wolverines attempted to stay both mentally and physically fresh without the requisite tools to do so. No teammates or athletic facilities. No scrimmages, weight room sessions or locker room banter.
“It’s really just a lotta, mainly chemistry,” Livers said. “Being off for a week-and-a-half, two weeks, not playing together, it’s gonna affect timing.”
To ease the transition, Michigan got creative. Strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson compiled home workout regimens. On a text chain, players and coaches shared videos of their workouts — from associate coach Phil Martelli running on a treadmill to head trainer Alex Wong jogging in his neighborhood. Livers spent time breaking down his game. Howard poured over film of upcoming opponents. “Couldn’t just sit on my hands,” he said.
“Just because we’re shut down doesn’t mean we can’t still get better each day,” Livers said. “Do your workout. Don’t try to be lazy, don’t think of this as a vacation. We’re still trying to do something here, still trying to win championships.”
Michigan re-embarks on its road to a championship on Sunday in Madison against No. 21 Wisconsin. In total, the Wolverines will have missed five games due to the pause. To complete the entirety of the 20-game conference slate, they will have to squeeze 11 games into a 22-day window.
No one minced words when presented with that possibility.
“It doesn’t sound fun,” Livers said. “As much as I would like to, we don’t have robotic legs. I wish we didn’t feel soreness or I would be all for it, but that would be very sore, then going into the postseason, I don’t know if that would be the best idea.”
Howard expressed concern for nagging injuries — hamstrings, groins, knees. Players are already more susceptible to muscle strains and pulls due to the shutdown, and a cram of games would only amplify the risk.
“It would be challenging on a lot of levels,” Howard said. “Let’s start with school. We’d miss a ton of classes. Let’s also look at the mental health standpoint. I’m an open book. This is our guys’ team and their schedule and also their college experience. Would they want to play 11 games in 22 days? And then from a health standpoint, I’m not sure if it would be smart because of the long layoff. And rushing and playing that many games in a short amount of time does not give the human body time to recover, which at the end of the day, we’re not machines, we’re humans.
“If the main thing is about our health and safety, let’s make sure that’s the main thing. Is it smart to play that many games in that many days?”
Currently, Michigan sits alone atop the conference, clenching a half-game lead over Illinois and Ohio State. A Big Ten title is within reach, but the fallout from the shutdown could derail those hopes. COVID-19, too, can rear its head again at any time.
The Wolverines, though, feel prepared.
“From a mental standpoint, I think we’re prepared for any obstacle that’s in our way,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “Definitely not gonna be easy, but that’s how you win championships. It’s not supposed to be. One game at a time and try to get as many wins as possible.”