Even the most casual Michigan basketball fan knows one name: Air Georgia.

Morgan Morel
Junior Brent Petway has averaged nearly five more rebounds per game and has already surpassed his block total from last season. He and the Wolverines will take on Miami (Ohio) on Thursday night. (ALEX DZIADOSZ/Daily)

The 6-foot-8 senior, named Brent Petway, was expected to provide a spark off the bench last season with one of his trademark head-above-the-rim slams, powerful blocks or timely charges to shift the momentum in the Wolverines’ favor.

But the Wolverines are asking more out of Petway this season. The graduation of big man Graham Brown has left a void in the paint, which means the team needs Petway to be a steady contributor alongside Courtney Sims as opposed to merely an X factor.

More important, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker and the rest of the players considered Brown the heart and soul of last year’s squad. Every night, they knew they could count on him to provide the physical defense, flattening screens and hustle plays that could swing the momentum of a game.

Now the burden falls on the extremely vocal Petway. Despite concerns about his ability to handle such a role – he played in just 22 games last season after being declared academically ineligible for the fall semester – Petway has willingly embraced his new role.

“I’ve got that personality to step in and fill that spot as that hustle guy who gives his all every night,” Petway said. “(Amaker) said it was going to be rough. (Brown) did some of the little things that most people weren’t doing on the team, and somebody was going to have to step up and do that for us to be successful. I just took it on myself to be able to step into that roll.”

A month into the season, it’s safe to say Petway’s efforts to lead Michigan have been successful. Amaker pointed out just what the McDonough, Ga., native means to this team.

“Brent is the heart and soul of our team this year,” Amaker said. “His teammates respond to him and they respect him. He’s led us in a lot of different things that may not show up in a scoring category like rebounding and hustle plays. He’s a vocal leader.”

Part of what has allowed Petway to step into this new roll is his ability to walk the fine line between getting on players to play harder and still treating them a way a teammate deserves to be treated.

“You have to be one of those players that has respect for your teammates, first of all,” Petway said. “You’ve got to be a player that goes out there and works hard every day, because if players don’t see you working hard, they’re probably not going to listen to you.”

Beyond filling in as one of team’s leaders, Petway has given the Wolverines exactly what they needed in the lane.

Through nine games, he’s averaged 8.3 rebounds per game – a full rebound more per contest than Brown, who led the team last season. Along with keeping opponents off the glass, the senior has 19 blocks this season, equaling his entire output from last year.

Petway is also scoring more than he ever has. He continues to prove his critics wrong by flashing a few post moves and showcasing the ability to knock down open jumpers.

Equally important is his efficiency. His field-goal percentage (.620) is as high as it’s been since his freshman season, when he played less and could conserve his energy.

Petway’s ability to step up may come as a shock to those who thought of him as immature.

But it hasn’t been surprising to the man himself, whose biggest challenge so far hasn’t been blocking out or scoring buckets, but merely playing so much basketball. Petway has averaged almost 26 minutes a game compared to last year’s 16.1, and the increased playing time has been an adjustment for him.

“After playing a 30-minute game, you have a real appreciation for it because I come back the next day at practice, and I’m not used to being that sore,” Petway said. “It’s definitely a good feeling during the game because you know coach wants you in there at the end, and that shows his confidence in you. But the day after, you definitely feel it.”

The Wolverines hope they can continue to count on Petway to spark the team night in and night out. If the first nine games are any indication, they have nothing to worry about.

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