Center Jon Teske’s teammates nicknamed him Big Sleep. It’s a reflection of the seven-foot senior’s quiet demeanor off the court. But recently, he’s been relatively quiet on the court as well. 

Going into the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game at Purdue on Saturday, Teske averaged just over five points a game over the previous five games, shooting just 28 percent from the field. It’s a significant drop-off for someone who averaged 14 points a game over the first nine games of the season.

“I just have to stay confident in my shot,” Teske said last Tuesday when asked about his struggles on offense. “When I get the ball down low, just go up strong. A lot of teams, they game-plan around me. So my job is just to either get a shot up or kick it back out for an open look. But my teammates trust me to make the right decision. I just have to stay confident in my shot. … I’m just playing through it.”

But against the Boilermakers, bolstered by the confidence of having scored 18 points in the two teams’ January meeting, Teske finally seemed to find his spark again. He put up 11 points — the most he’s scored in almost a month. He avoided foul trouble (which has been an issue in games at times this season) and notched five rebounds and four assists on the day.

And on defense, Teske was part of an effort that held sophomore forward Trevion Williams to 39.7 percent from the field, a far cry from the 36 points he scored previously.

“This came from the defensive side of the ball,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said after Saturday’s game. “The tribute goes to (Michigan coach Juwan Howard), and to (assistant coach Saddi Washington), as the defensive coordinator, insisting on shrinking the floor. Insisting. … 

“I said, when we were in a slump, that if we can start guarding the ball, it’ll go alright. That wasn’t a thing of beauty offensively, obviously, in the second half. We’re maybe not built that way. But the defensive side of the ball? 

“We could’ve stayed out there another 20 minutes. They just were not going to score enough. And that’s what’s happening to these teams. They’re just not scoring enough.”

Teske has been a key to Michigan’s defensive efforts all season. He’s made the most of his size, and has played a big role as a shot-blocker inside. When the Wolverines’ defense is performing well, Teske is usually at the heart of that.

His performance is often at the center of the offense, too, whether it be in setting screens for Michigan’s guards or posting up. Teske’s early-season scoring run coincided with the stretch over which Michigan went on an 8-1 tear and skyrocketed to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. His quieter streak on offense fell mainly over the period that saw Michigan bleeding conference games left and right.

Lately, the Wolverines have gotten hot again – something Teske largely has not been a part of, as his slump on offense has continued. 

But that may be changing. 

Saturday’s performance was much closer to the Teske of the early season. With upcoming games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Maryland — all of whom have strong interiors anchored by even stronger big men — Michigan needs that Teske back, on both sides of the ball. 

“We have to protect the paint,” Howard said Saturday. “We can’t allow a drive to a dump-off and that ends up being a score in the paint. It’s something we have stressed, that we have to do a better job of protecting the paint. … So it’s important for me to get our guys more organized.”

Under Howard’s direction, rim protection has been a major focus for this team throughout the course of the season, and Teske has been a major part of that. Early on, Howard often left Teske alone in the post and relied almost entirely on him to shut down scoring inside. Lately, Teske’s been getting some help in the post from guards, and it’s proven successful. Michigan’s post defense has been much improved lately, no longer a doormat for the various Big Ten big men it faces.

But interior offense has been a major factor in Michigan’s success for a lot of the year as well. Much of that, too, is due to Teske. It’s part of what has made the highs so high and the lows so low. 

March, and the organized chaos that it brings to college basketball, is just six days away. If the Wolverines want to really make a run at it, they’re going to need to be able to win in multiple ways. Perimeter scoring seems just fine. Points in the paint, though, are still something of a question. And as much as senior center Austin Davis and sophomore forward Colin Castleton have been helping, Teske, the senior captain, still plays the most minutes of any of Michigan’s big men. When he’s at his best, he is the team’s anchor. 

The Wolverines are about to have to navigate their way through the craziness of March. It’s clear that the path of least resistance is the one in which Teske adds another dimension. 

They just have to hope he shows up.

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