Michigan coach talks about how much the backup center has grown compared to last year. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Bring up his outing against Wisconsin on Feb. 16 and Michigan sophomore center Jon Teske can't help but laugh and shake his head.
During a brutal two-minute stretch against the Badgers, Teske was worked by Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ, an All-Big Ten first-team selection who is a daunting assignment for any big man.
Teske's first-half stint started with a foul on Happ that led to two made free throws, and only snowballed from there. On the ensuing possession, Happ poked the ball away from Teske and raced down the court for a dunk. Then after giving up a layup to Happ, Teske committed another foul as Michigan watched a six-point lead evaporate within the blink of an eye.
It was a rather unforgettable moment for all the wrong reasons for Teske, who was quickly yanked out of the game and only made two more brief appearances the rest of the season.
“Yeah, I remember that vividly,” Teske said Wednesday during Michigan’s media day at Crisler Center. “We won that game so that's all that matters. But all the guys kind of jokingly say, 'You remember that minute stretch, Jon?' It’s just kind of something that I know happens to everyone.
“I just look at it and learn from it knowing all those guys are good and just realizing what it takes to play in the Big Ten.”
While it served as a wake-up call and showed Teske (7-foot-1, 255 pounds) how much work he still had to do, it's a scenario the Wolverines can ill afford to repeat this season. Michigan doesn't have an experienced option now that Mark Donnal is gone, leaving the backup burden squarely on Teske's and redshirt sophomore Austin Davis' shoulders to provide valuable minutes off the bench behind starter Moritz Wagner.
According to Michigan coach John Beilein, Teske, who averaged three minutes per game and recorded 12 rebounds, 10 fouls, seven blocks and five points in 20 games as a freshman, was hampered by confidence issues last season but has made strides to instill belief back into his game.
"He's not walking out there as Swaggy Jon right now, I'm telling you that. He's going out there but he's much better," Beilein said. "He can shoot the ball, he's got the hook shot. He's still reacting a little bit slowly to some of the stuff that he has to do as far as being quicker on his feet and using that 7-1 (frame).
"He and Austin are very similar and they're very comfortable being comfortable. We want them to be comfortable being uncomfortable and just continue to play as hard as you can. It's not high school anymore where the coach is saying don't get in foul trouble, save yourself. You got to go out and do everything…They don't know yet how to play really hard and that's our job to teach that in practice and in games.”
So far this preseason, assistant coach Saddi Washington said Teske and Davis are progressing at a steady pace but neither player has consistently established an edge over the other.
“Somebody is going to have to try to separate themselves from the other one in terms of just trying to have that playing time, but I think that's a good challenge for them and a good mindset for them to be in because at the end of the day it'll probably be some combination of them early," Washington said. "Then as the year goes along we'll see what happens."
Washington added he changed Teske's nickname from ‘Big Sleep’ to ‘Big Nasty’ with the hope he will learn to tap into a gritty side that will help take his game to the next level.
“I think really both of those guys have to embrace some form of alter ego when they're out there on the floor because they're really good kids, quiet kids by nature but we need them to really play with a more physical nature for them to really be productive for us,” Washington said.
As a result, Davis said he and Teske are continuously beating on each other and not backing down at practice in an effort to unleash that desired physicality. And bringing a “stronger toughness” — along with his rebounding prowess — is an area Davis (6-10, 240) said he can make the biggest impact.
Furthermore, Davis slimmed down and lost roughly 10 pounds, something he hopes will pay off and help optimize his performance.
“Physically, I feel much better than last year. I feel like I'm a lot quicker and able to get up and down the court better running wise and I'm able to move my feet a little bit better defensively,” he said. “It adds another part to my game that I feel much more confident running and being able to keep up with people now.”
While Beilein has yet to settle on his bench rotation, he said he’s hoping Davis will be one of the three bigs he uses this season even though Teske has outperformed him at this point of the preseason.
“Last year the scout team would score 16 points and he (Davis) might score 12 of them,” Beilein said. “Now accountability and defense and all these other things he's got to get better at. He's a guy whose body has really changed. He's got to change like his body has really changed and I know he will.
“But there's another level. He's one of those guys that when he gets to 212 degrees, when he's boiling, he's going to be really good but he's got to get there first. He's shown that in stages. He’s going to be very good once we get that little bit more intensity from him.”