The Michigan men's basketball team continues its unpredictable lineup experiments in pursuit of the perfect fit. Jenna Hickey/Daily. Buy this photo.

Through its first eight games, the Michigan men’s basketball team has been unpredictable. It took a middling Ohio squad to overtime and let porous Jackson State hang around for nearly a half, only to have a chance at the buzzer to defeat No. 3 Virginia and take No. 19 Kentucky down to the wire in its last two matchups. 

But what’s been even harder than predicting how the Wolverines will play, is predicting who Michigan will rotate onto the floor and when. 

That’s not to say that the starting lineup hasn’t been consistent or certain contributors haven’t come off the bench regularly. Instead, it points to more nuance. Michigan coach Juwan Howard has tinkered with combinations on the floor, how many minutes each substitute plays, who comes off the bench first and what depth player he’ll suddenly elevate to a prominent in-game role. 

And so far, he hasn’t shown any signs of letting up. 

“We’re still evaluating (our rotations),” Howard said Nov. 28. “We also are growing and getting better day by day.” 

Those evaluations have been apparent over and over again. Against the Bobcats, Howard deployed a tactic that showed itself in some form or another in every game since: mass substitutions to enter lineups made entirely of bench players at times. 

Those lineups have just barely held their own whenever called upon. They’re often energetic and intense, keeping teams from going on runs but usually struggling to create runs of their own. They’ve shown promise, but haven’t proven to be sustainable. Currently, Michigan averages 17 bench points-per-game — good for a measly 283rd in the country. 

Those mass substitutions have often come earlier in games when the starters struggled to pull ahead against inferior competition. While some may see that as “sending a message” to the starters, Howard claims otherwise. 

“We have a deep team,” Howard said on Nov. 23 when asked if his rotations were sending a message. “… There (will be) some times when we need to allow those five guys to get some rest, and as you can see when they got back in we went on another run.” 

When providing that answer, Howard listed seven bench players that embody his team’s depth, while emphasizing that, “the list can keep growing.” Most coaches may shout-out deep bench players yet rarely play them, but the Wolverines are still searching for a group of bench players that will contribute consistently.

That search has led to many unique substitutions. 

Against Jackson State, freshman forward Youssef Khayat notched meaningful minutes early in the game after rarely appearing before — he didn’t play in the two games since. Against the Wildcats in London, redshirt freshman forward Will Tschetter was the first off the bench, despite totaling only 16 prior minutes on the court. 

In fact, the Kentucky matchup took Howard’s “still evaluating” sentiment to the next level. Sophomore guard Isaiah Barnes — who also hasn’t seen much time — was a key contributor early and nailed two 3-pointers as freshman wing Jett Howard was on the bench in foul trouble. Michigan also deployed the guard pairing of graduate Jaelin Llewellyn and freshman Dug McDaniel together for the first time all year. 

Despite all the different combinations, it’s hard to tell if the Wolverines have made any true headway. Through eight games, it’s clear that Michigan is looking for a large sample size before narrowing its war chest. 

“That’s how most teams do it early on in the season,” junior center Hunter Dickinson claimed after the Cavaliers game. “… (We) probably (have) a deeper bench than normal, just to figure out guys’ roles and guys’ minutes. … We don’t have the rotations finalized yet.” 

A spot that looked finalized leading up to London was the starting point guard position, but after Llewellyn went down with a knee injury, the plethora of lineup mixtures may only grow. Luckily for the Wolverines, they have had plenty of chances to figure out what works on the floor, but those chances may dwindle as Big Ten play nears.

Whether Michigan can turn those changes and evaluations into consistent production and stable presences remains hard to predict. But if the Wolverines want to be successful in the conference, Juwan will need to figure it out — sooner rather than later.