In the fallout of Juwan Howard’s suspension, there were a myriad of concerns over how his absence could impact Michigan on the court.
There were questions about how play calls would be carried out with associate head coach Phil Martelli filling in as head coach. There were reasons to wonder if the one-game bans for freshman forward Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II would decimate Michigan’s front court and force shaky rotations. And there was the obvious concern: Would the Wolverines fall flat after the chaos of the last few days?
But a swell of players stepped into the gaps, effectively silencing those questions.
Players who had been marred by inconsistency most of the year found their footing, at least for one night, and overwhelmed Rutgers — helping Michigan to cruise to a victory.
“I think when everyone’s playing well, I think it unlocks things for everyone,” freshman forward Caleb Houstan said. “I think everyone had a real good game today, even if the stats don’t show it. Everyone was real aggressive, everyone played their game.”
No player has had more of a roller-coaster season than Houstan, who came into the year carrying the lofty expectation of being the Wolverines’ best shooter. He’s flashed that ability at times, but he’s also gone ice-cold in far too many stretches. Against Rutgers, though, he was red hot. He erupted for a career-high 21 points, including five drained threes.
“When he’s making shots, he’s one of the best freshmen in the country, no doubt,” graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “I love seeing him being aggressive, looking for his shot. It doesn’t only open the floor for him but opens the floor for us as teammates. So if he keeps being aggressive, sky’s the limit for sure.”
Houstan led the team in scoring, but he wasn’t the only usually-inconsistent contributor thriving in an outsized role. Jones, whose season has also featured a series of highs and lows, chipped in 14 points along with seven rebounds. Though just 6-foot-1, Jones seemed unfazed to drive into the paint. He came down with his third-highest rebounding total of the season — a much-needed return with the scarcity of depth down low.
Jones and Houstan have started every game for the Wolverines this season, but they usually take a backseat role to sophomore center Hunter Dickinson. With Dickinson having a pedestrian 6-for-13 shooting night, however, Jones and Houstan proved their worth when it mattered most.
“Your starters are your starters for a reason,” Martelli said. “They earned that spot. So if we can get them through, we’re going to try to get them through.”
Off the bench, role players stepped up as well, none more than freshman guard Kobe Bufkin, who played a season-high 21 minutes. While Bufkin didn’t have a particularly memorable night on offense with just five points, he provided plenty of defensive energy, guarding multiple positions and using his long frame to disrupt Scarlet Knights’ shots.
“He’s a hard worker,” Jones said. “That’s one person I can say that’s really in the gym consistently, no matter if he’s playing or not, he doesn’t let any of that affect his game. Now that he’s actually getting a chance to get more reps, you can see that his confidence is growing and that’s definitely helping the team.”
Bufkin, Jones and Houstan were all newcomers to Michigan’s roster this year, and each was expected to be a big contributor. Their initial struggles are a significant reason why the Wolverines have cratered from their No. 6 preseason ranking. But against Rutgers, the trio fulfilled those expectations, providing a glimpse of the team Michigan is capable of being when all its pieces are clicking.
At Martelli’s press conference Tuesday afternoon , he knew that there would only be one formula to move the team forward and out of the fog of the Wisconsin game:
“It’s clear to all of us, to everybody involved, that we’re only doing this together. And to be honest with you, if we fail, we fail together.”
And at least through one game, that togetherness is only leading to success.