Typically, Michigan men’s basketball headlines feature the names Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks. Newcomers Moussa Diabate and Caleb Houstan have also found a healthy amount of space atop the page.
But Tuesday night’s blowout win over Nebraska highlighted other names.
It highlighted senior forward Brandon Johns Jr., who appeared to return to the form onlookers saw during last season’s NCAA Tournament. It highlighted sophomore forward Terrance Williams II, who led the team with 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting and was a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond the arc. It even highlighted sophomore guard Zeb Jackson, who scored just five points, but played 15 minutes after coming back from an illness.
And it’s not like the typical headliners played poorly — it was actually quite the opposite. The freshman, sophomore, fifth-year combo of Houstan, Dickinson and Brooks all scored in double digits. Houstan, bringing in the most with 16 points, shot the lights out of the ball, going 66.7% from the field and 57.1% from deep.
But it was the role players who facilitated it all. They seemingly transformed Michigan’s offense, and in turn the ability for its anchors to thrive once again.
“We figured out that we just needed to be the more connected team,” Johns said. “We figured that when we get down to most types of issues, we kind of just hurt each other, stop trusting each other at certain points.”
But trust is earned. And until recently, the team’s non-starters — and even a few starters — had not done enough to warrant any kind of trust.
Some of the trust began to build up against San Diego State this past Saturday. The players coming off the bench weren’t dazzling, but they were contributing — and that’s what Michigan needed.
Freshman guard Frankie Collins was one such factor, providing a true spark when he checked in. Williams and Johns also played significant minutes, doing their job and facilitating scoring from the team’s stars.
Then in Lincoln, it reached critical mass. It was the role players’ night to shine.
“We’re playing as a team, and we’re trusting each other,” Jackson said.
They continued to build that trust out by stepping into roles when they were called upon. Johns, for example, filled a starting position with Diabate — the freshman big man — out of the lineup with an illness, and Johns made it look like he deserved the spot he filled. And that goes for each player who came off the bench with nine of 25 assists as well as 38 points coming from non-starters.
“I feel like it’s just (a) next man up mentality,” Williams said. “Coach Howard always talks about staying ready. You know, being that next man up when your name is called. I think everybody was ready when their name was called and when they got in the game.”
The results have been a complete change in identity for Michigan. It has gone from a team that at this time last week looked directionless — and that’s putting it softly — to a team that is just spewing confidence in its game.
But as quickly as trust can be gained, so too can it be lost.
For the Wolverines to maintain this new swagger, they need this to be more than a phase from the role players. They need it to be the norm.