The grind of a college basketball season can put the squeeze on many teams. Playing over 30 games in a little over four months is grueling for players, and they can tire out before tournament time.
But right now, the Michigan men’s basketball team has the opposite problem.
After the Dec. 21 game against Purdue Fort Wayne was cancelled, it left a larger than anticipated gap in the Wolverines’ schedule. When they take the court in Orlando, Fla. on Thursday against the University of Central Florida, it will be their first game in 11 days and only their second in the last 18. When speaking to reporters on Wednesday, though, Michigan coach Juwan Howard was just happy for the chance to finally play.
“I’ve always had this mindset about embracing the suck, so whatever it is that’s thrown our way, we’re not going to make any excuses for it,” Howard said. “When we get the opportunity to play, we’re always very appreciative and blessed that we’re doing something that we all enjoy doing.”
The lack of games could have more of an impact on this particular Wolverines team. With a younger roster that’s still building chemistry and trying to find its stride, having some more non-conference games could have been critical in preparing Michigan for the gauntlet of Big Ten play.
Instead, following the matchup with the Knights, the Wolverines will hit the ground running in January. Starting on Jan 4., they’ll play five games in 11 days — including two top ten opponents in Michigan State and Purdue.
Howard likened the long layoff to the University-wide COVID-19 pause last February that halted all Michigan athletic events for three weeks. While the makeup of the teams was different, that squad was able to go 6-2 to close out the regular season following the break. The Wolverines hope they can get back to playing winning basketball this time around as well.
“The two weeks we dealt with it before last year,” Howard said. “I like what I’ve seen thus far in practice, and we’re doing our best to navigate during these tough times.”
With the extra time off, Michigan has focused on building their bond as a team. This included some intrasquad scrimmages that focused on cutting down turnovers and playing at a good tempo. The Wolverines also chose to travel down to Florida a couple days early, giving them the chance to watch former Michigan guard Franz Wagner play for the Orlando Magic, a game in which he set an NBA career high with 38 points.
“It was great,” Howard said. “A holiday for the team just to get together and spend some more time just developing that brotherhood, that chemistry, that the family bonding that we’ve always been about.”
The team hopes that by getting closer off the court, it can translate into better results on it. So far, Michigan has had a variety of problems that have led to inconsistent results and real questions about its potential ceiling.
For now, the Wolverines are solely focused on UCF. When they step out on the court, they’ll hope they can get rolling the same way they did in their 87-50 beatdown of Southern Utah. They believe their practices have gotten them up to speed.
“We did a good job of getting back in playing shape,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said on Dec. 29. “Just playing as much as possible as soon as we got back and getting a feel for each other again.”
Michigan knows that to be competitive in the Big Ten, it starts with coming out strong on Thursday. It’s been a tough season so far, but the Wolverines want to grow from the adversity. The extra time off is just one more hurdle to deal with.
“No matter if it’s two days in between or two weeks in between,” Howard said. “We’re always gearing up and are excited to have an opportunity to play against competition.”