Less than eight hours before tip-off, it was announced that the Michigan men’s basketball team would not play No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday due to COVID-19 concerns within the Wolverines’ program.
After being tested on Friday, the team fell below the Big Ten minimum of seven available scholarship players.
Unsurprisingly, 24 hours later, it was revealed that Michigan wouldn’t meet the threshold on Tuesday and would also forgo its matchup against No. 3 Purdue. With each unscheduled day off the court, Michigan coach Juwan Howard is losing his most fleeting resource: time.
After four unranked non-conference losses, Howard has repeatedly stated that his players have what it takes to turn it around — even when the number of those players available to compete has begun to dwindle.
“It’s so easy to try and point out like, ‘What’s missing?’ ” Howard said after Tuesday’s loss to unranked Rutgers. “ ‘No leadership, no shooting, no defense.’ I have so much positive — I see so many great things.”
Now, the potential Howard sees will have to wait until at least Jan. 14, when the Wolverines are scheduled to play Illinois in Champaign.
But Howard is familiar with COVID-related challenges. Last season, COVID-19 was always a factor, whether it was looming as a constant threat or a present danger.
Most notably, Howard and his team weathered a two-week athletic pause extending from the end of January to the middle of February last year. As COVID-19 transitioned from a novelty to a constant reality, there came to be an expectation of what a team would look like after a COVID-19 pause: off on its shooting, sloppy in its defense, generally sluggish from being locked out of the gym in the middle of the season.
So, naturally, there were concerns that the pause would hamper a season that was off to a stellar start.
“Well, there were some turnovers being made,” Howard told reporters after the first practice post-COVID-19 pause last season. “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.”
But the Wolverines didn’t lose an ounce of momentum. Michigan shook off the rust with a road win against Wisconsin, a performance that snowballed into a five-game win streak. In just his second season in Ann Arbor, Howard proved himself not just as a coach that could shape talent but one that could withstand adversity.
Of course, there are very few resemblances between this season and last. Last season, the Wolverines went into the COVID-19 pause with a 13-1 record and a No. 4 ranking. After the first half of this season, Michigan is solidly unranked with a firmly mediocre record of 7-6.
Potentially more importantly, last year’s pause was athletic-department-wide, a result of COVID-19 outbreaks in other programs. While this year’s break will likely be shorter, there’s a difference between getting players back in shape after they’ve been sitting in their apartments versus bringing players back after potentially having COVID-19.
And, there’s a difference between facing a pause while trying to keep a team at the top of its game and trying to revive a team that’s limping through conference play.
The question of how big that difference is — and whether Howard has what it takes to overcome it — will have to wait.