Whenever Jon Teske stumbled into foul trouble last season, it often spelled trouble for the Michigan men’s basketball team. With the Wolverines lacking a dependable backup ‘5,’ they struggled to navigate long stretches without their 7-foot-1 starting center.
This season, however, that doesn’t appear to be the case. During Wednesday’s 83-76 win over Iowa State at the Battle 4 Atlantis, the big men behind Teske showed how far they’ve come.
Current redshirt junior, Austin Davis began last season as Teske’s primary backup while then-freshmen Brandon Johns Jr. and Colin Castleton adjusted to the college level. And when Davis fell out of the rotation, Johns looked uncomfortable at center and, although Castleton showed promise as a shot-blocker, his frail frame often kept him from making a major impact. Isaiah Livers, a 6-foot-7 forward, emerged as the best option to get backup minutes as a small-ball ‘5.’
With the Wolverines trailing early against the Cyclones, Teske was whistled for a pair of moving screens in the game’s first five minutes. In a true measuring stick of progress, Castleton and Davis steadied the ship over the next 15 minutes, allowing Michigan to remain competitive during a critical first-half stretch.
“It’s next man up, that’s how it goes,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters in the Bahamas. “Colin came in and gave us a big lift. … Austin stepped right in — those six minutes, that was the best six minutes. That’s a guy who doesn’t take time to get ready because he’s always ready. He prepared like he’s a starter, and I always communicate that to my players. You’ve got to stay locked into the game, you never when your name is called and when you’re ready to come in, be ready to deliver.”
By halftime, the Wolverines had established a four-point lead behind Castleton and Davis’ solid minutes. The duo combined for six points on 3-of-5 shooting and grabbed three rebounds. During his four first-half minutes, Johns played alongside Davis, making an impact on the glass with three rebounds.
When Teske picked up another two fouls five minutes into the second half, the Wolverines were thrusted into a similar predicament. This time, Howard rolled with Castleton.
In a testament to how much he’s improved over the last year, Castleton excelled. In a play that encapsulates his improvement, he blew by his defender off the dribble from the top of the key, sent him flying with a pump fake and finished strong from underneath the rim. He knocked down all three of his field goal attempts during his strong eight-minute stretch, helping the Wolverines fend off Iowa State’s comeback bid.
“Jon trusts me a lot,” Castleton said last week. “My goal is, when I get in there, not to have a dropoff and to support him as best as I can whenever he’s tired, whenever he needs some more rest, to just go in there and have energy and to help the big guy out.
“I got his back, he’s got my back. I’m going to work hard for him when he needs a break, and then when he comes in, you already know what he’s doing. It feels good to be able to have his back like that and come in to support him.”
During his six-year stint as an assistant with the Miami Heat, one of Howard’s primary responsibilities was developing frontcourt players. Now, the same coach behind the rapid ascension of Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo appears to be making a similar mark in Ann Arbor.
With Teske averaging 12.8 points and nine rebounds across 25.6 minutes per game, all Howard needs is a reliable stopgap during his bench stints. Castleton, in particular, has provided significantly more than that. In 12.4 minutes per game, he has averaged 7.2 points and 3.2 rebounds
“I just impact the team the best way I can when I’m on the floor so there’s no dropoff when Jon comes off the floor,” Castleton said, “because he’s the best big man in the country in my opinion.”