STORRS, Conn. — With less than two minutes left in the first half of Saturday’s 69-61 loss at Connecticut, an unlikely player threw off his warmup jersey and jogged onto the floor: forward Eric Puls.
The redshirt freshman is Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein’s last option on the bench and had played just 17 minutes prior to the Wolverines’ trip to Connecticut.
Puls should have never been in the game, but Beilein had no choice. He was forced to throw in the skinny, 6-foot-10 Puls against the top-ranked Huskies because the two Michigan junior forwards, Zack Gibson and DeShawn Sims, had already picked up two fouls apiece.
It was the first time Puls played anything other than garbage minutes all year.
“I was ready to go,” Puls said after the game. “I knew Zack (Gibson) and Peedi (Sims) had a couple fouls on them. I thought we might need me to come off the bench and put in a few minutes.”
Puls is just one of three Michigan players taller than 6-foot-7. Connecticut has seven.
Puls’s assignment was to box out Connecticut’s mammoth 7-foot-3 center, Hasheem Thabeet, prompting his teammates to yell, “Get ’em, E.”
Puls stood his own and wasn’t pushed around, and even recorded a block on senior guard A.J. Price.
And Puls wasn’t the only Wolverine to play because of foul trouble. Despite Beilein’s insistence that he wants to play just an eight-man lineup, every player except sophomore guard Kelvin Grady saw the floor Saturday.
“One through 14, everyone’s ready,” fifth-year senior guard David Merritt said. “If (Beilein) calls our name, we’re going. If he doesn’t call our name, we’re cheering on our teammates.”
Foul trouble not only forced Beilein to use his bench, but it also allowed the Huskies to rack up easy points from the line.
Connecticut was 19-of-25 from the charity strip while the Wolverines were just 8-of-12.
“It’s tough because they’re getting free shots at the basket and no time is going off,” fifth-year senior guard C.J. Lee said. “Give them credit. They were making it tough on defense. They were swinging the ball. They were getting it inside.”
Many of Michigan’s fouls came from increased physical toughness on defense. The Wolverines run a four-guard system and gave up a lot of size to the Huskies. Smaller players picked up fouls trying to stop the bigger opponents.
“We weren’t going to be out-toughed,” Lee said. “We were probably going to be out-athleticized today. We weren’t going to be out-scrapped for rebounds.”
After the game, the players said they will keep that same mantra for tonight’s contest against No. 9 Michigan State.
The Spartans’ fast-paced tempo is similar to Connecticut’s, and they have a roster with seven players that are 6-foot-8 or taller.
But they will most likely be without their most prolific forward, Raymar Morgan, who Michigan State coach Tom Izzo gave a three-percent chance of playing because of a nagging case of mononucleosis.
Regardless of whether Morgan plays, the small Michigan lineup will again need to play tough if it hopes to knock off the Spartans.