'They're just as valuable': UM scout-team members get their moment in the spotlight
Ann Arbor — From senior guard Zavier Simpson’s nifty passes to junior forward Isaiah Livers’ numerous dunks, there was no shortage of moments that drew applause from the Crisler Center crowd.
Yet, the largest cheers came in the final minutes of Friday’s 111-68 win over Houston Baptist when Michigan had emptied its bench.
That’s when a pair of walk-ons and scout-team members — guard Rico Ozuna-Harrison and forward Jaron Faulds — scored their first career points in a Michigan uniform.
"It's so exciting because people don't really get to see the behind the scenes,” said Livers, who scored a career-high 24 points on 9-for-10 shooting. “I think we should honestly do a documentary on our practice players because they're just as valuable from Zavier all the way down to Rico. They're just as valuable. They need the support for sure.”
Ozuna-Harrison, a Detroit native, is in his third season with the team and appeared in just three games prior to Friday’s contest.
He checked in for the first time this season with 2:58 remaining and scored 44 seconds later on a fast-break layup off a long bounce pass from fellow walk-on guard Luke Wilson.
"I was excited, man, because Rico works hard,” Livers said. “He's a pest, especially on the ball guarding me and X or Eli (Brooks) and Dave (DeJulius), whoever is ball handling. He deserves it. All the hard work they put in and a lot of fans don't realize how much work they put in.”
Faulds, who transferred from Columbia University as a preferred walk-on last year, didn’t have to wait as long as Ozuna-Harrison to notch his name in the scoring column.
Faulds capped the win with a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left after he came down with an offensive rebound and was fouled on the putback attempt.
"It’s inspiring to see how hard they work in practice,” coach Juwan Howard said. “I coach Rico just like I coach Zavier. I coach Jaron just like how I coach Jon (Teske). There's no difference, there's no drop-off. I don't treat anyone different.
“I try to develop Jaron just like how I develop Jon. It doesn't surprise me when they come out there and play with high energy. Some of the fans get excited because they score. I expect it. I've seen it in practice. I know what they can do.”
While the lopsided win allowed Howard to reward all the of end-of-the-bench players, it also gave Michigan’s reserves a healthy helping of minutes and more game reps heading into a tough stretch that starts with next week’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
Most notable of the bunch was freshman guard Cole Bajema, who received his first significant dose of playing time and was even on the floor for a stretch in the first half alongside sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr., sophomore center Colin Castleton, Brooks and DeJulius.
“Personally, it helped just getting touches, just getting used to the college system, getting used to playing on the home court,” said Bajema, who added getting acclimated to the game speed “is a process.”
“The guys help me a lot just building confidence throughout the week in practice leading up to this. It's a lot of fun getting out there.”
Like Ozuna-Harrison and Faulds, Bajema also recorded his first career bucket at Michigan when he pump-faked a defender and knocked down a mid-range jumper in the first half. He added a 3-pointer late in the game to finish with five points and two rebounds in 13 minutes.
“I told Cole just like I told everyone, I was proud of the effort," Howard said. "Cole deserved to play. He played well throughout practice. You can just see the confidence is growing and building within Cole. You can see the trust that his teammates are having in Cole. You can see how Cole is buying in to all the new way of play.
“Yes, you have seen freshmen who hit the ground running and perform very well at a high level. I'm not saying Cole hasn't, but it takes time. Cole will be an integral part in helping us become a winning team.”