If you can’t think of a time when Jon Teske played alongside another big man last season, it’s for good reason.
For the Michigan basketball team, those instances were few and far between. Now-departed forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews played significant minutes on last year’s team, and then-sophomore wing Isaiah Livers also saw time off the bench. That, coupled with the fact that the Wolverines’ didn’t have a true backup ‘5,’ prevented then-freshmen Brandon Johns Jr. and Colin Castleton from making a major impact.
That’s no longer the case.
After Brazdeikis and Matthews left for the NBA Draft, Livers assumed a role as a starter. Now sophomores, Johns and Castleton spent the summer in Ann Arbor, where they gained much-needed muscle ahead of their anticipated spikes in playing time. Howard envisions both players as pieces capable of scoring at all three levels, holding their own on the glass and guarding multiple positions.
Against Appalachian State last Tuesday, Johns and Castleton all looked much-improved. The duo accounted for 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting and grabbed five rebounds. Perhaps it was the undersized opponent or natural maturity of being a year older, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the immediate returns of hiring first-year coach Juwan Howard, who developed young big men like Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo as an assistant with the Miami Heat.
“Everyday, (Howard) is working us out one-on-one, all the big guys, and he’s the coach that’s getting down and dirty with us,” Castleton said at Michigan’s media day in October. “He’ll push us, bump us and stuff like that, and he’ll teach us while we do it. … I don’t think it’s like (what) any other coach can do because he’s that position player.”
With no shortage of frontcourt talent in the Big Ten this season, Howard used last Tuesday’s season-opener to flex his own team’s muscle. After Teske scored 11 points in just over four minutes, the Wolverines showcased variations of his lineup that featured multiple big men.
While Teske may be the lone center in the starting lineup, two of Michigan’s three rotational big men were on the floor together for 14 minutes of the first half. The Wolverines reaped the benefits, outscoring the Mountaineers by 10 points in that timespan.
“As far as defense-wise, we can show the other team multiple lineups,” Castleton said. “I think it’s great as far as versatility and on the offensive end it’s good too because we have a great high-low game, and me and (Teske) can both shoot the ball. … We can spread the floor out and we’re both two really big bodies on the glass as well.”
There weren’t many interior challenges against an Appalachian State team that doesn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-9 on its roster, while the Wolverines’ three rotational big men are at least that tall.
Tuesday night, a Creighton team with only one healthy player taller than 6-foot-8 visits Crisler Center. That player is 6-foot-11 center Kelvin Jones, who is now on his fourth college after stints at UTEP, Odessa College and Idaho State.
From Howard’s perspective, though, his team’s interior success boils down to more than just size.
“It’s been effective for us,” Howard said. “Jon is an excellent passer, a high-IQ player, (he’s) always going to make the right play, never going to try to do anything he cannot do. … Brandon, with his activity and energy, he’s been ready every time his name has been called on. He’s been able to produce, and so has Colin.”
Added Castleton: “(Passing) is one of the things in (Teske’s) game that people don’t really talk about. He has so many other tools he can show and different things on offense and defense he does so well that overpower the passing ability he shows, but passing is probably one of his best attributes.”
Teske’s passing could become the key to sustaining success with multiple big men on the floor against formidable Big Ten defenses. When Michigan can’t overwhelm teams with size alone, high-low ball movement between big men can open opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t present themselves.
But to Johns, the appeal is simpler.
“It’s like huge towers out there,” Johns said. “We’re so big, our size disrupts a lot of defenses.”