A St Johns player is midair as he grabs the rebound. Tarris Reed and Olivier Nkamhoua surround him as they also reach for the ball at Madison Square Garden.
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Entering the season, questions swirled about the Michigan men’s basketball team’s frontcourt. 

Losing center Hunter Dickinson — the Wolverines’ leading scorer and rebounder over the past two years — bred uncertainty and contention surrounding the frontcourt dynamic and how their forwards would handle inflated roles. But most of those hesitations focused on the offensive end.

So far this season, though, the biggest concerns have emerged on the defensive end.

Facing its first test in St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Michigan passed with ease — but it was far from perfect. The Wolverines dominated the second half, but the first was a different story. Eight minutes into play, Michigan was an impressive 8-for-9 from the field. Despite that impressive clip, it only led St. John’s by a mere two points.

And one of the reasons that lead was so narrow was rebounding. In that eight minute span, the Red Storm collected four offensive boards, asserting their aggression and dominance. 

“(St. John’s is) an aggressive offense and rebounding team, guys with size, strength and athleticism,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said Thursday. “We got to do a better job of putting bodies on bodies earlier, extending away from the paint.”

When the Wolverines failed to do so against the Red Storm, they capitalized on those extra possessions, converting four second-chance buckets. Eight minutes in, Michigan had 20 points off near immaculate shooting. Meanwhile St. John’s had 10 of their 18 points off the Wolverines’ rebounding woes.

Michigan’s struggles on the defensive glass didn’t end there, though. They continued plaguing the Wolverines, who finished the game with 14 offensive rebounds — nearly half as many as the Red Storm’s 27. Michigan finished the game with eight fewer boards than St. John’s, due to the Wolverines five additional defensive rebounds.

“It’s definitely an area that we have to clean up so that it doesn’t continue to be problematic for us as we move through the season,” Washington said. “But it’s (an area) that our guys and our staff are aware of. We’re three games in, and hopefully that’s an area we can get cleaned up for sure.”

The frontcourt’s early struggles aren’t without cause, though. None of the players who filled those spots at the end of last season returned. In addition, with Dickinson’s transfer to Kansas, the Wolverines don’t have a single center on their roster. 

So far this season, sophomore forward Tarris Reed Jr. has taken the bulk of the minutes at the ‘5,’ with redshirt sophomore Will Tschetter flexing between the power forward and center spots. While Tschetter has stepped up and held his own in the paint, there are clearly kinks that need to be worked out. 

Namely, the intensity crashing the boards.

“We can’t just run and spring under the basket,” graduate forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “We have to be ready for those kinds of rebounds and then just collectively do a better job of boxing out. If your man is not coming in, then (you should be) sealing. Sealing the big or helping somebody else box out if there’s a mismatch.”

Just sprinting into the paint isn’t effective for Michigan to rebound — against St. John’s or any other opponent. In order to make the adjustments Nkamhoua mentioned, communication is critical. With so many new pieces, the slow start to achieving that stems from how the frontcourt is still melding as a unit.

On Friday, Michigan has the opportunity to put all that to the test against Long Beach State. 

Although it’s November and the Wolverines have just three games under their belt, making strides in weaknesses is important. It may not seem critical now, but come January, allowing 27 offensive rebounds could seal Michigan’s fate against Big Ten foes.

And the Beach will truly test the Wolverines. Last season, Long Beach State boasted an offensive rebound percentage of 34.6%, slating in as the 19th best in the nation. 

“I was watching them, Long Beach State, this morning and I’m like, ‘Jesus christ, we have to go against another group of young men who just relentlessly crash the boards,’ ” Washington said. “… It’s a fine line of trying to drill it in practice this time of year because you want to maintain health and freshness. But at the same time it’s something that we have talked about pretty much daily. ”

Michigan acknowledges its current Achilles’ heel, but it similarly recognizes that it’s November, and in the Wolverines’ quest to improve their rebounding, players’ health and longevity are key considerations. Developing its rebounding prowess is frequently talked about —but that only means so much.

Self aware about necessary improvements, Michigan is certainly talking the talk. Now, the question is whether it can walk the walk — or more accurately, board the boards.