Bob Wojnowski, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins break down MSU's win over UM The Detroit News
East Lansing — Before the second half arrived and before Michigan started to slowly fall apart at the seams, there was a first-half stretch when things didn’t look promising.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers picked up his second foul at the 10:45 mark and sat the rest of the half. Then 44 seconds later, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis joined Livers on the bench after drawing his second whistle.
Next to them was redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews, who went through pregame warm-ups but didn’t feel right and missed his third straight game with a right ankle sprain.
Michigan’s leading scorer, top wing defender and most versatile piece all watched from the sidelines as the reserves were pressed into action and thrown into the Breslin Center cauldron.
And what they witnessed — given the stakes and the environment — was arguably one of the team’s most impressive performances from its bench all season in Saturday’s 75-63 loss to Michigan State that denied Michigan (26-5, 15-5 Big Ten) a share of the conference regular-season title.
“I loved it. I love seeing our young guys get to experience that, come out and play in our rivalry at the Breslin Center,” Livers said. “They were playing very efficient. Of course, they're going to have some freshman mistakes on the defensive end, but who isn't as a freshman that hasn't played all season? I think they did really good when they came in honestly.
“It just gives them some experience and they can say I played a good amount of minutes at our rival’s house. It's good for them to have going into the postseason and through their workouts. Even after the season, they got something to think about and motivate them.”
Sophomore guard Eli Brooks led the bench effort with five points, three rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes. He drained his first shot attempt, a 3-pointer, for his first basket in six games and first deep ball since Dec. 30.
Freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. (13 minutes), freshman center Colin Castleton (10 minutes) and freshman guard David DeJulius (seven minutes) all saw extended playing time in a hostile atmosphere.
Shortly after Brazdeikis checked out for the rest of the half, DeJulius and Johns were part of a lineup consisting of Brooks, sophomore guard Jordan Poole and junior center Jon Teske that helped push the lead to double digits.
During the roughly two-minute stretch those five were on the floor, DeJulius made it an 11-point game by turning defense into offense and taking a deflected pass the other way for a fast-break layup.
“It does a lot to get some experience in the game like this,” DeJulius said. “I'm just trusting the process and I feel like today allowed me to move a lot faster in that process to be able to come out here, play against a good team in Michigan State and get my beak wet a little bit.
"It was great for my confidence and I think I can speak for them (the other freshmen) that it was great for their confidence as well. For us to be out there at the same time it's great. This is big for us and this is big for our team going into tournament play.”
The bench had its share of teachable moments. Johns, the East Lansing native who spurned Michigan State for Michigan, was heartily booed even though he wasn’t much of a factor. He had three fouls and a pair of miscommunications that led to an open dunk on defense and a pass sailing out of bounds on offense.
But there were encouraging signs that none of the rookies were overwhelmed and faltered under the weight of Saturday’s game. Castleton showed patience around the rim and dove on the floor for a rebound at one point, and DeJulius brought plenty of energy and wasn’t afraid to keep shooting despite having a couple shots blocked.
"I think Dave stepped up big defensively and offensively,” Brooks said. “He looked like he was running the team well. Colin coming in and giving us good minutes is key for our success.
“Getting in to a game with this atmosphere and this amount of hype around it, it really builds character for our young guys.”
With the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments right around the corner, it's a taste of what's ahead for a reserve unit that ranks No. 350 nationally in bench minutes at 17.9 percent, according to KenPom.com.
But one can't measure the valuable experience the younger guys gained in Saturday's showdown, which makes the outcome not a complete lost cause heading into the postseason and beyond.
“Everyone knows we're not very (deep),” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I am proud of the way our freshmen played in the first half.
“This is a young, young team…So I think as we go through this thing, we're going to be so much better next year because of all the lessons we learned in all these darn games.”