Ann Arbor — John Beilein knew he was still missing something.
But a day after insisting the search would go on — even as the calendar flips to March —Michigan’s head coach might’ve found it by throwing up his hands and turning to his bench.
Beilein described the ninth-ranked Wolverines’ 82-53 rout of Nebraska on Thursday as “a great bounce-back game” for his team, coming on the heels of Sunday’s loss to Michigan State and keeping alive Michigan's hopes for a share of the Big Ten championship.
But a month from now, he may look back on this one and see it as something more than that.
"Our big thing has been we need some bench," Beilein said this week, giving voice to a season-long frustration for his coaching staff. "And we're trying like crazy. But it hasn't happened yet.”
Thursday night, it did at just the right time, as sophomore Isaiah Livers reprised his starting role from a year ago and produced a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) while replacing an injured Charles Matthews in the lineup.
Just as important, perhaps, was the breakout performance Michigan got from freshman big man Colin Castleton, who came off the bench to add 11 points in just over 9 minutes and may finally be the answer to Beilein's exasperating search for a backup center.
All of this helped lighten the mood on what could’ve been a slightly somber Senior Night at Crisler Center, where the only player being honored in the pregame ceremony wasn’t even in uniform. Matthews, the fourth-year junior who's expected to turn pro after this season, came out in a walking boot, idled by the sprained right ankle he suffered early in Sunday’s loss to the Spartans. And it’s unclear when he’ll be ready to return.
So Beilein’s message to his players before practice Wednesday was fairly straightforward: “Who’s gonna step up?”
For Livers, it wasn’t a huge leap. He started 22 games a year ago as a freshman, and he was averaging more than 21 minutes a contest this season.
“I kinda feel like I’m starting already, being the sixth man and all,” he said, “so it wasn’t that much of a change.”
Still, it was a chance he’d been waiting for all season, having stepped aside to make room for freshman Ignas Brazdeikis in the lineup and then struggling, at times, to find a rhythm offensively.
Against Nebraska, Livers spent much of his time playing the wing, and he came alive at both ends, hounding the Huskers’ James Palmer Jr. into an awful shooting night (0-for-8 in the first half, 3-for-15 for the game) while helping spread the floor for Michigan’s offense. He drilled his first 3-point attempt, finished 3-for-6 from beyond the arc, and even handed out three assists — nearly doubling his season total in conference play.
Beilein called Livers’ performance “terrific,” but it was also necessary. And the same could be said for Castleton, as crazy as that might've sounded in December or January.
Jon Teske’s heavy workload was becoming an issue for the Wolverines. He’d averaged nearly 33 minutes the last six games, and the fatigue was starting to show in Michigan’s mid-half lulls, including Sunday against the Spartans. After watching the film of that game this week, Beilein decided 30 minutes needs to be the limit for Teske, who was terrific himself in Thursday's win, finishing with a career-best 22 points and 10 rebounds in 29:42 on the court.
But who’ll get the rest when he gets his? That's the question that's been dogging the coaches. And Matthews injury only complicates matters, because Livers typically slides to the five when Teske sits down. No one else has stepped up consistently beyond that.
That wasn't the case when Moritz Wagner needed a rest or was in foul trouble the past two seasons. It was Mark Donnal or D.J. Wilson a couple years ago, and last season it was Teske. But this year?
“We still can’t find that,” Beilein said Wednesday. “We’re trying.”
He’d given junior Austin Davis the first crack earlier this season. Then it was freshman Brandon Johns making a few cameo appearances. But outside of Johns’ effort against Indiana in early January, neither did enough to convince the coaches they’d found an answer.
Beilein hadn’t been floored by what he’d seen from Castleton, either, but “he was slightly edging ahead of others” in practice, and after a show of hands from his assistants this week, “We said, ‘Let’s just put him in there and let him go,’” Beilein said.
Once they did, sending Castleton in after Teske picked up a foul 5 minutes into the game, the freshman quickly made his presence felt. He scored six points in a 9-0 run as Michigan broke the game open, and he did it with the kind of assertiveness that’s been lacking from the others vying for time.
It helped that the Wolverines were making a point of reacting better to opponents’ switching ball screens. It also helped that they were facing a Nebraska team that has all but quit on its season, losing 10 of 12 and leaving coach Tim Miles no choice but to bench two of his starters after halftime for their listless play.
Still, it doesn’t hurt that Castleton has added 20 pounds to his slender, 6-foot-11 frame since the start of the season — he’s playing at 230 now — and that he’s been putting in extra work on the court on a daily basis.
Thursday, it showed as he rolled to the rim, caught entry passes with confidence and then finished with a mix of strength and touch at the rim.
“I’ve been working on those things every day,” Castleton said, “and I just had the opportunity to show it.”
Michigan coach talks about his team closing out the home portion of the schedule with an 82-53 win without Charles Matthews, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
He’d played a total of nine minutes over three Big Ten games this season, with half of those coming at the end of a lopsided loss at Iowa. Thursday, he doubled that in one night.
“I’m just so proud of him — I feel like his dad or something,” Livers said, laughing. “I’m just so excited for him, having that big game. He deserves it. He works so hard.”
Another freshman also is getting some run of late. David DeJulius was the first guard off the bench again Thursday, played a season-high 17 minutes in the win, and appears to have supplanted sophomore Eli Brooks as the primary backup in the backcourt.
Asked after the game if both those freshman — DeJulius and Castleton — would be part of the rotation moving forward, Beilein didn’t hedge much.
"I would doubt if we’d go another game where they’re not in,” he said. “A long as they’re paying attention to the scouting reports, working hard and have the right attitude, they’ll get in there.”
It’s now or never, really, when it comes to this season.
Michigan came into Thursday’s game ranked 352nd nationally in bench usage, according to KenPom, with reserves logging just 17.1 percent of the team’s minutes. Only Hartford among Division I teams has been more reliant on its starters this season.
And while that may not be as big of an issue in the NCAA Tournament, there's a reason Beilein always finds himself searching for "an outlier" at this time of year. You never know when you'll need one as a coach. You only know you will at some point during March Madness.
As for why the freshman are only now emerging as possibilities, Beilein shrugged.
"We’d like it to have been earlier," he said. "But you don’t get to 25-4 if you lose some games early because you’re playing those guys. You’re not competing for the championship right now. So we just said 'We’re gonna bring ‘em along in practice' and at some point you’ve got to throw ’em in there and let ‘em fail. And the time is now."
And much to the coach's delight Thursday, it was a success.