Months before most students return to campus in the fall, the Michigan men’s basketball team is in Ann Arbor working. Summer practices signal the start of a new season and give a new contingent of players and coaches a chance to gel and establish their own unique identity.
At least that’s what usually happens.
This past summer, COVID-19 threw a wrench into that typical arrangement. Introductions were conducted over Zoom and workouts were completed on an individual basis. It wasn’t until August that all of Michigan’s players were on campus, and even then, interaction was limited at first.
In spite of the circumstances, though, the Wolverines found ways to bond. Getting to know each other is a crucial first step for every team and with six new faces — consisting of two transfers and four freshmen — this was especially necessary for Michigan.
One of those new additions, graduate transfer Mike Smith, wasted no time connecting with his teammates through any means he could.
“I think I’m a really social guy when it comes to my teammates,” Smith said. “I like to hang out with them. I know (sophomore forward Franz Wagner) doesn’t like to play video games, so I would go to Franz’s house just to watch the NBA games. Whereas if (freshman center Hunter Dickinson)’s around, I would play a video game with him online and get to know him. For (freshman guard Zeb Jackson), I’d just hang out with him and listen to some music. With (senior guard Eli Brooks), he doesn’t care, we could play cornhole outside just me and him.
“It’s all about the little things and I think just building a bond outside of basketball is what builds trust when you start playing basketball.”
After a disjointed offseason, Michigan is finally able to do just that — play basketball. The Wolverines held their first official teamwide practice last Wednesday, finally giving them a chance to gel on the court as well as off it.
“We all fight hard in practice, we ran conditioning tests, ran the stadium stairs together,” Smith said. “It’s basically like we do everything together. The only time you’re by yourself is at home for like four hours. You’re doing homework during that time or playing a game or something for like four hours. But then you’re going to sleep, and you see each other again.”
Smith also credits Michigan coach Juwan Howard for cultivating such camaraderie among his players. In just his second season, Howard has already seemed to build a unique culture within the program — something high school recruits and transfers like Smith are paying attention to.
“First thing I noticed with them as people is that they welcomed me with open arms,” Smith said. “That’s a Michigan culture thing here — once you’re in, you’re all in. Everybody treats you the same. Nobody’s treated better than somebody else and coaches always preach that. You can see that everybody cares for you, who you are and what you bring to the table.”
This season more than others, the process of building chemistry has been a two-way street for the Wolverines. While the new faces have actively sought out their teammates, Michigan’s returning players have also taken it upon themselves to integrate them into the program.
In particular, fifth-year center Austin Davis has made a point of showing Dickinson the ropes.
“We’ve got a great relationship,” Davis said. “We definitely hang out outside of basketball, outside of Crisler here, quite a bit. All the bigs, I think this has been one of the tighter groups of bigs along with (senior forward Jaron Faulds). Especially us three have been really close this year, just texting back and forth and all those kinds of things.”
Earlier this summer, Davis invited Dickinson and Faulds to his hometown of Onsted, Mich. As an avid outdoorsman, Davis took the pair on a fishing trip. During the NBA Finals, Davis even held a teamwide fish fry at his apartment.
“He’s a good guy,” Smith said. “It’s just the little things like that that people don’t notice that make an impact on your life and his life for sure.”
Added Davis: “We had a little team bonding experience, that was a good time.”
The pandemic may have limited the Wolverines’ initial interactions, but whether it’s been through a game of cornhole or a fish fry, they’re catching up just fine.
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