Michigan coach talks about his team bouncing back in Thursday's win over Nebraska and looking ahead to Sunday's game at Maryland. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan coach John Beilein knew it was time.
With redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews sidelined by a right ankle injury and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers moving into the starting lineup, the Wolverines were going have to throw in some of their younger bench guys and let them sink or swim.
Enter “Swaggy C,” a nickname assistant coach Luke Yaklich bestowed upon little-used freshman center Colin Castleton.
In Thursday’s win over Nebraska, Castleton made a splash with a season-high 11 points, three rebounds and a blocked shot in nine highly productive minutes.
More importantly, he looked like a possible solution to Michigan’s season-long search for a backup center heading into Sunday’s matchup at Maryland.
“I talk to the coaches and they just told me to be ready every day,” Castleton said. "If you keep working hard you're going to get an opportunity and when that opportunity comes you have to shine. You can’t back down from competition, you can't back down from a big game.”
With Livers taking over the starting wing spot and hounding Nebraska’s top scorer James Palmer, he wasn't an option to play the five. And with Beilein wanting to shave down junior center Jon Teske’s minutes to around 30 per game, that meant someone else was going to have to step up.
That led to the coaching staff taking a vote and Castleton, who was “slightly edging ahead” of freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. and redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis in practice, earned the nod.
After Teske picked up a foul five minutes into the game, Castleton wasted little time making the most of his chance. He scored on his first offensive possession by backing down his defender and scoring on a drop-step move in the post. It was the start of six points he recorded within a span on 3 minutes, 17 seconds that sparked an 18-4 run and blew the game open early.
Later when Nebraska switched a ball screen and Castleton had a smaller defender on him, he flashed, kept his hands high, kept the ball high and finished off the glass. And even though he’s not physically imposing with his lanky, 6-foot-11, 230-pound frame, Castleton he muscled his way to the rim at one point and shook off contact when a Nebraska defender went flying over his shoulders.
"He's shows that every day in practice,” Teske said. “He goes against me, Austin, Brandon every day in practice. It might not show that he's physically ready, but he has the touch around the rim. To go around you, he’s got different moves in the post and he's able to score around the basket with some soft touch.”
Castleton noted he’s learning how to play with more finesse, be more “structural” as a player and improve his skill set around the rim by soaking in the little pointers Teske teaches him every day in practice.
Then there’s also all the 30-minute sessions Castleton spent working on his footwork with assistant coach Saddi Washington, an area in which Beilein said most big men aren't polished in out of high school and one Castleton has been “working on like crazy” all season.
“I got in there and saw (Castleton) was making some really nice moves down low that Coach B is going to love in film,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. “He's probably going to talk about it for three to five minutes.
“Us basketball players, we don't like to do the simple moves sometimes. That Colin in fact did the simple moves, Coach B is going to love it. You know Coach B is a fundamental guy. He's just going to love all the steps and stuff.”
Beilein noted that while Castleton provides action-packed minutes — “Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but there’s action” — and makes things happen, whether it’s rebounding, scoring or blocking shots, the next step for him is to tap into his endurance.
“His head was spinning last night that he was in there for so long,” Beilein said. “He wanted a rest after the first two minutes and we had a TV timeout and I said, 'No, there's no rest right now. We're having a TV timeout. There's your rest. Jon needs his rest.' That's what I think he's got to understand. He needs to understand he can play through fatigue.”
Beilein said he doubts Castleton won't be in the lineup moving forward but added Castleton has “got to continue to show us” what he's capable of, something Johns hasn't been able to do following his breakout game against Indiana in January.
It’s been a long, steady climb for Castleton to get to this point — and one the Wolverines hope doesn’t stop now.
“I had some bumps in the road, had some really down days, but I just fought back and kept my head high,” Castleton said. “Coach B has been telling me I've been progressing every day and going upward. Hopefully I can keep going upward.”
Michigan at Maryland
Tip-off: 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.
Records: No. 9 Michigan 25-4, 14-4 Big Ten; No. 17 Maryland 21-8, 12-6
Outlook: Maryland is the only team in the Big Ten that ranks in the top five in both scoring offense (72.1 points; fifth) and scoring defense (65 points; fifth). The Terrapins have won three straight at Xfinity Center but have played just two home games since Feb. 1. ... Michigan won the first meeting, 65-52, on Feb. 16 and will look to sweep the season series for the second straight season.