Over nine days since its last game, the Michigan men’s basketball team is set to return to action against the 25th-ranked Illini on Friday night.
“We have, by the Big Ten standard, seven players in order to be available and active to play a game and one coach,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “So right now — at this moment — we have seven players and one coach available.”
The return follows a week in which the Wolverines faced an onslaught of COVID-19, barring them from playing in games against No.10 Michigan State and No. 7 Purdue. Without enough players to meet the minimum seven scholarship athletes and one coach required to play during that span, they tried to piece together some semblance of practice for players who had not tested positive, were not symptomatic nor required to quarantine.
“We had very unorthodox practices as of late,” Howard said. “We haven’t been able to have 10 players to practice in the last week or so.”
With all the struggles this team has faced thus far, limited practice heading into a top-25 matchup in enemy territory is the last thing it needs — especially against a team like Illinois that has a knack for physically overpowering its opponents.
At the forefront of that talent stands center Kofi Cockburn, the true cog of the machine that the Illini can become. He creates a mismatch against nearly everyone in the Big Ten, with Michigan’s sophomore center Hunter Dickinson among the select few that can challenge the 7-footer.
But while Dickinson would presumably match up well against Cockburn, there’s no confirmation of whether Dickinson is among the players eligible to play against Illinois. Without Dickinson, the Wolverines’ chances in Champaign would go from an uphill battle to an expedition up the North Face of Everest.
That’s partially a byproduct of the formidable cast that Illinois has surrounding Cockburn.
“They’re a very well coached team that plays extremely hard on both ends of the floor,” Howard said. “They’re physical. They do a tremendous job playing inside out. … Their team is patient enough, and they run a lot of their offensive sets that goes through (Cockburn) first. They also have shooting on the floor at all four positions.”
While Michigan is shorthanded, it will have to do its best to stave off attacks from both inside and out, quite possibly without all of its typical starters at its disposal. In the face of this adversity, Howard remains steadfast in his team’s approach and demeanor:
“We’re rolling up our sleeves and standing together and staying locked in on the big picture.”