While its season is not scheduled to begin until Nov.25, the Michigan men’s basketball team has been hard at work for months.
Official practices won’t begin until Oct. 14, but teams have been permitted to work out together.
“It’s been great to get guys back into the gym,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They’re looking forward to the opportunity of getting better.”
After having the rug pulled out from underneath them just moments before their first Big Ten Tournament game against Rutgers, the Wolverines have been anxious to have an opportunity to make some noise in the postseason. Assistant coach Phil Martelli admitted that the uncertainty over this season prevented the team from fully locking into summer workouts, but the NCAA’s mid-September announcement confirming a season would be played has flipped a switch.
“There’s a vibe, there’s an excitement (now), about having a chance to pursue a Big Ten championship,” Martelli said.
According to Martelli, the improvements made by the team in workouts have been evident. He remarked that senior guard Adrien Nuñez has become a more physical and confident presence on the court, and senior guard Eli Brooks has significantly improved his basketball IQ. Martelli also added that senior forward Isaiah Livers has been a stabilizing presence for the team as it prepares for the season, both due to his ability to mentor younger players and perform well himself on the floor during team scrimmages.
While they may not be big names, Martelli made sure to mention that Howard has routinely taken a chance to break down plays and game film with his walk-ons, often going into the same amount of time and detail with them as he does with the team’s scholarship players.
“I told him that’s why he’s gonna be great at this (job),” Martelli said. “His care and concern for each individual, person first, player second, is why I’m convinced he’s a star.”
Howard’s attention to walk-ons is reflective of his commitment to caring for his players. During quarantine, he kept in touch with the team over Zoom to check in on the well-being of his players on a weekly basis. Howard and Martelli also coordinated with strength coach Jon Sanderson to help curate workout plans for the players to do while in quarantine.
Martelli stressed, though, that until they were cleared to workout in June, almost every conversation between coaches and their players focused on mental health, believing that it was their utmost priority during an unprecedented time.
“Everything during the pandemic was centered on their mental and physical well-being,” Martelli said. “It just wasn’t the time to talk basketball.”
With the season’s tipoff just over one month away, Martelli looks forward to having a chance to put the team’s hard work and mental preparation on display on the court. While he felt that the adjustment period during and after the pandemic was a difficult one, Martelli says that he couldn’t be more excited to work with Howard, both the coach and the person, for a second season.
“It was different being home for four months,” Martelli said. “But the energy in recruiting and the energy of teaching on the floor is laser vision for me in that I wanna be by his side when he coaches on a Monday night in April. No one is destined to do that, but if someone has the ability to do it, I know for sure that I’m in the right place.”
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