'The journey continues': Unbeaten Michigan seeks to develop bench strength
Ann Arbor — The Wolverines clawed through the roughest and toughest portion of their early-season schedule and emerged unscathed.
With wins over North Carolina, Purdue and Northwestern in a seven-day span, Michigan (9-0) proved its defense can frustrate and suffocate some of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses. It can beat teams with different guys each night. It can take a punch and persevere in the face of adversity on the road.
But if the three-game stretch taught the No. 5 Wolverines anything, it’s the need for them to develop depth beyond their seven-man rotation.
As the attention shifts back to nonconference play after two early Big Ten games, Michigan enters a key stretch against not-so-stellar competition that will provide a prime time to build up its bench.
Michigan will play just four games in 23 days, starting Saturday with South Carolina. That will be followed by a game a week the rest of the month against Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Air Force (Dec. 22) and Binghamton (Dec. 30).
“I think what's most key is the four or five days of practice we have between games,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Friday. “We can really push them (backups) against the starters or play with the starters and not knowing, 'Hey, we got to get ready for this next game.' The Monday, Tuesday of each week for the next few weeks we will really be spending all Michigan time.
“That's where I tell David (DeJulius), 'David, you're the starting point guard. X (Zavier Simpson) is in foul trouble or you're going into the game early and you got to run this team,' and just see where he is compared to where he was a month ago when we had to say, 'We got difficult games in here. We can't be experimenting in November.’ We got to know who we are, so that'll be key.”
Michigan's bench production has taken a hit in its last three wins, with key reserves Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks and backup big man Austin Davis combining for 10 points in 34 minutes against North Carolina, five points in 26 minutes against Purdue and three points in 44 minutes at Northwestern.
Over that same span, Brooks was the only one of the three who finished with a positive plus-minus rating, with a plus-3 against the Tar Heels and plus-1 against the Wildcats. Livers’ best rating is a minus-3 he posted against North Carolina and Davis’ was an even zero against Purdue, when he only saw 31 seconds of action after being yanked for a quick foul.
While the Wolverines were still able to win comfortably against the Tar Heels and Boilermakers, the road contest against the Wildcats was a different story. Livers wasn’t much of a factor and finished with a team-worst minus-15 plus-minus rating. Davis played extended minutes with junior center Jon Teske in foul trouble and was on the floor every time Northwestern made a run. Brooks was the lone one to make a difference, nailing a 3-pointer and assisting on another in the final five minutes.
Beilein has stated he wants to expand his rotation, with freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. and freshman guard David DeJulius being the likeliest additions, and have more prepared options in the event of injuries, foul trouble or slumps.
And while Johns, a versatile piece who has spent time at the four and five, might be the closest to being ready, Beilein made it known he’s not just going to hand him minutes and a bigger role. He must earn it and prove himself every single day.
“He's got to show us in practice that he's got a lot of energy, he can make differences in games, he can pick up things quickly,” Beilein said. “And usually it's defense. Everybody makes too much of some intricate system we run here. I dummy it down for those guys. It's about defense.
“Are you going to sit there and watch the ball screen and not call a ball screen coverage and then not cover the coverage? It's pretty simple, but for many freshmen it takes some time. He's starting to do that right now.”
As for DeJulius, Beilein said he’s “doing OK” grasping the offense and learning how to command it. But unlike Johns, there’s much more DeJulius has to process and pick up as Michigan switches things up from opponent to opponent.
“There's a lot of offense and defense, but he's got the talent level to do both really well. But as a quarterback, it is very different than what Brandon has to do,” Beilein said. “On defense, he's got to have a strong message. He's got a lot he has to do that other guys don't have to do. That's why you see most quarterbacks (in football) redshirt, as well.”
Junior guard Zavier Simpson has been in DeJulius’ and Johns’ situation before and reminds them to stay focused, stay confident and just be ready to contribute whenever their number is called.
According to Simpson, one of the most important things he learned while going through the same process is to not let the dissatisfaction with his playing time affect him on the court.
“I used to carry a suitcase my freshman year when I used to get in the last four minutes of the game," Simpson said. "I used to be mad that I played three minutes prior or four, five minutes prior, so I would get in the game and be mad about that.
“There was so much negative on my back when I used to come in the game. I'd have an opportunity to make an easy layup but because of that suitcase I was carrying I would miss it or it would roll in and out, just small things like that.”
Simpson said neither DeJulius or Johns carries that metaphorical suitcase with them as they continue to work toward a consistent bench role.
Instead, the only thing they’re packing are valuable lessons with each passing day, practice and game.
“I think (the team) has learned that you have to separate each game, be ready to come and play each game, which I think we did really well, then move on," Beilein said. "You get done with those games, the journey continues. There’s another game to get ready for.
“That's the biggest thing I think our young guys are learning, it's a journey. I just have to hang in there and keep working to get better.”
South Carolina at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 5 Michigan 9-0, 2-0 Big Ten; South Carolina 4-4
Outlook: South Carolina finished third in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off last month in Uncasville, Conn., the same tournament Michigan won. The Gamecocks are coming off their first true road game of the season, a 73-64 loss at Wyoming…This is the start of a six-game home stretch for Michigan, who is 5-0 at Crisler Center with an average win margin of 20.4 points.
Seven Michigan players are getting the bulk of minutes through nine games:
Charles Matthews, 30.3 minutes
Zavier Simpson, 30.3
Jordan Poole, 30.2
Ignas Brazdeikis, 28.2
Jon Teske, 26.3
Isaiah Livers, 20.9
Eli Brooks, 17.6