At the beginning of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season, roster depth was a serious question swirling around these Wolverines. It seemed as if three players — junior forward Isaiah Livers, senior point guard Zavier Simpson and senior center Jon Teske — would have to carry the team.
That hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.
Livers was sidelined with a groin injury in late December and reaggravated it against Illinois a month later. On Sunday against Indiana, he appeared to injure his ankle — he’s currently wearing a boot as a precaution, and it’s unclear whether he’ll play at Rutgers on Wednesday. Simpson was given a one-game suspension at the beginning of the month for a traffic violation. Teske has been slumping lately, putting up double-digits just once in the last five games and shooting 30 percent.
Early in the season, any one of these could have been a major problem for Michigan.
Now, while missing production from one of these three is still less than ideal, the Wolverines have figured out a way to get by — and then some, thanks to their bench play.
“Now that the season has progressed, and we’ve dealt with injuries and suspension, guys have to step up,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “That allowed guys like Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, and others — Austin Davis, too — to have a larger role with the team. I’ve felt we were deep from the beginning.”
To bolster the interior offense amid Teske’s struggles, Michigan has turned to his fellow senior center, Austin Davis. Though this is the first season in which Davis has seen significant playing time, he’s been making his presence known in the last few games.
“Big Country is hooping,” Livers said, grinning, last week, referencing Davis’ nickname. Davis notched nine points against both Indiana and Northwestern and a career-high 11 against Ohio State at the beginning of the month. He’s also usually good for somewhere between three and five rebounds in around 10 minutes a game.
“He’s improved so much,” Teske said. “He’s always been there. He works hard every day, and you just want to get him attempts here and there.
“I’m so proud of him and happy for him. To be able to get his chance now — he’s been taking with it and running with it. These last couple games, he’s been our sparkplug. I’m so proud of how hard he’s worked and what he’s done so far.”
When Livers has been sidelined, sophomore forward Brandon Johns, Jr. has stepped into the starting role. It was a bit of an adjustment, but Johns has been finding his stride lately. He scored 14 points against the Hoosiers on Sunday and put up a career-high 20 two weeks ago against Rutgers in New York, a performance Michigan will hope he can repeat when the Wolverines travel to Piscataway to face the Scarlet Knights again on Wednesday.
Howard has been preaching confidence to Johns all season, and the results have been clear in Johns’s game lately. It’s in the way he carries himself, both on and off the court: shoulders squared, head high, eyes clear. He’s self-assured, and he has every reason to be. He’s taking more shots, and more of those shots are falling.
“He’s been solid all year, man,” Howard said after the Indiana game on Sunday. “He has one of the prettiest jump shots. I wish I could shoot the ball back in the day like Brandon. He’s another guy that comes in practice and is always trying to look for ways to improve. We’ve seen the guy, this season, he’s just blossoming, game after game.
“With this energy and effort, the way how he attacks the glass, with his force, his athleticism, and now he’s flying around, being active, that’s him. That’s who he is. He’s our energizer.”
Of the three starters, Simpson perhaps least requires a capable backup. It’s not uncommon for him to play the entire game, or close to it. But that hasn’t been happening as much lately, as sophomore guard David DeJulius has taken on a bigger role — he started at Nebraska when Simpson was suspended — and more minutes; he’s averaging a little over 20 minutes per game.
DeJulius is making the most of that time. He’s finding opportunities for himself, putting up 10 points against Michigan State while facing Cassius Winston, one of the best point guards in college basketball. But in true point guard form, he’s also starting to find them for his teammates; he had seven assists at Northwestern last week.
“I’m trying to make improvements each and every day,” DeJulius said. “Being more confident in that leadership role, just in case (Simpson) goes down, or gets in foul trouble, or for any reason, it’s just being able to be prepared for the moment. I feel like being able to make plays not only for myself but for my teammates has always been my game.”
Obviously, Michigan would like to have Simpson, Livers and Teske at their best. But going forward, if that’s not the case for whatever reason, the Wolverines are in good hands. This bench, shaped by the adversity of a midseason slump, is more than prepared to bolster the team going forward.