Considering the Michigan men’s basketball team’s ever-present problems, it’s easy to point fingers at the players who see the court the most. The flaws, however, run far deeper than the starting five.
The Wolverines’ depth has been a constant weak point the entire season. On Saturday, No. 10 Michigan State outscored Michigan, 33-6, in bench points en route to a 16-point loss in East Lansing. The problem with this trend, though, isn’t just Michigan’s bench deficit over the weekend, but how frequently the team finds itself in this position.
Even in a 19-point blowout win over Maryland, the Terrapins bench outscored the Wolverines, 17-13. In a close win over Northwestern, Michigan’s bench was outscored again, this time by 14. It’s a pervasive issue, even in games when the Wolverines manage to come away with a win.
“We always want big production out of our bench,” Michigan assistant coach Howard Eisley said. “We don’t want to have to rely on our starters, not only for big production but to carry a heavy minute load … production that we can get off the bench is always wanted and needed.”
Added Eisley: “When I say more production, it doesn’t necessarily always mean scoring. We’re just looking for guys to really impact the game positively.”
While Eisley might emphasize the importance of the rotation players’ production to the coaching staff, the reality remains far from what he preaches. The Wolverines haven’t found a single player off the bench that can consistently produce.
Sophomore forward Terrance Williams II shows flashes of ability followed by streaks of games where it looks like he’s regressed. Freshman guard Frankie Collins has the ball-handling and passing skills to contribute, but lacks any semblance of a shot good enough to space the floor. Freshman guard Kobe Bufkin simply hasn’t made the strides necessary to be a consistent player, and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. is almost always a liability on both ends of the floor.
Perhaps the most concerning byproduct of the lack of steady contribution is that Michigan has needed to rely on its starters for more minutes than it should.
“We’re asking a lot, especially of our bigs,” Eisley said. “Pick-and-roll coverage, to rebound the ball and, in a lot of cases, also to carry a heavy load in scoring.”
The consequences of this large ask was on full display against Michigan State, when — just a few minutes into the second half — the Wolverines’ starters showed fatigue. The result was an inability to keep up with the Spartans’ fast pace of play and an utter thrashing.
“I saw the fatigue in the first three minutes (of the second half),” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after Saturday’s loss. “And you only get three timeouts. … You can’t just burn them all at once. I saw, first three minutes, we had low energy. And that cannot happen on the road, or anyplace.”
For Michigan to resolve its workload problems, it needs production from its bench. And until they have it, the Wolverines will continue to ask too much from its starters.
And perhaps, lose more games because of it.