Niyo: Michigan's bench marks a hopeful sign for Juwan Howard

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There is strength in numbers.

And for Juwan Howard’s Michigan basketball team, the math was easy enough Friday night.

Iowa’s Luka Garza was a one-man show, finishing with a career-high 44 points, a single-game record for an opponent at Crisler Center. But the Wolverines had six players score in double figures to win rather handily, 103-91, in their Big Ten opener — Michigan’s highest offensive output against a conference foe since 1998.

Michigan guard Franz Wagner (21) and forward Isaiah Livers, rear, battle Iowa center Luka Garza (55) for a rebound in the second half.

Look beyond the numbers, though, and there’s an even better way to measure the value of this victory, which came on the heels of a frustrating loss Tuesday night at top-ranked Louisville.

There’s a trend line worth noting in the impressive start under Howard, Michigan’s rookie head coach. And it’s that growing confidence in some of the Wolverines’ role players — from Eli Brooks joining the starting lineup to David DeJulius to Brandon Johns Jr. off the bench — that bodes well as they continue this gauntlet run through their early-season schedule. (After a trip to Illinois on Wednesday, they’ll return home to face No. 13 Oregon next weekend.)

“We have a really good team,” said Johns, who finished with a career-high 12 points and eight rebounds — five on the offensive glass — while playing 19 minutes Friday. “I think a lot of people kind of put us down for how much depth we have. But I think we have a lot of depth on this team. I believe in us.”

Bench pressure

More nights like this will make believers of others, too, though it sounds like their head coach already is on board.

Howard’s willingness to turn to his bench a bit earlier and more often than his predecessor, John Beilein, seems to be paying immediate dividends. Nine players scored in the first half alone Friday, and Michigan’s bench essentially provided the final margin by outscoring Iowa’s reserves, 26-14, for the game.

A patient approach in living with mistakes from some of his younger players seems to be helping as well. Howard even jokingly criticized himself Friday night for the way he has run freshman Franz Wagner ragged since his return from a broken wrist last week, averaging 28 minutes a contest — some of them understandably a disoriented mess — as the Wolverines played five games in 10 days. 

More: 'I feel strong': Michigan's Wagner healthy, working his game back into shape

“The poor guy didn’t have no recovery time,” Howard laughed after Wagner had his most impressive outing to date, scoring a team-high 18 points — half of those from the free-throw line — as he aggressively attacked the basket.

Still, as recoveries go, this was exactly what the Wolverines needed.

Less than 72 hours after they’d lost a rock fight with Louisville by a 58-43 final score, the Wolverines scored 50 before halftime against the Hawkeyes.

Fran McCaffrey’s Iowa teams are traditionally defenseless, and this group certainly looks the part. It certainly looked nothing like Chris Mack’s pack-line defense that choked off the paint Tuesday night. Iowa tried a 1-2-2 trap and a 2-3 zone, but Michigan buried 3-pointers to force them out of it. When the Hawkeyes went man-to-man, it was nowhere near as effective at stopping Michigan’s ball-screen offense as the Cardinals’ hard-hedging approach against point guard Zavier Simpson.

The end result was a night the Wolverines scored on 45 of their 68 possessions, or a whopping 1.52 points per possession.

Staying ready

But it wasn’t simply the usual suspects doing all the damage offensively. In fact, when center Jon Teske got in foul trouble and his backup Colin Castleton headed to the locker room to get stitches after taking a flying elbow from Garza in the mouth, it was seldom-used senior Austin Davis who got the nod — and provided a lift.

It was a lineup of Brooks, DeJulius, Wagner, Johns Jr. and Davis that extended Michigan’s lead midway through the first half. And it was Davis who had the crowd roaring with about 7 minutes left, as a guy who’d never scored more than six points in a game scored six in succession — the last two on chin-up dunks — to keep Iowa at arm’s length.

“We have this motto on our team: ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’ ” Howard said. “And that’s how our guys responded.”

That includes Johns, the highly-touted recruit whose freshman campaign was largely a disappointment a year ago.

We saw a glimpse of this last season, sure, as Johns had what looked to be a breakthrough moment against Indiana in early January. Called into action with Isiah Livers sidelined by a back injury and both Teske and Davis in foul trouble, Johns came through with eight points, eight rebounds and a block in just 13 minutes off the bench against the Hoosiers.

But he played just three minutes in the next two games, and made just three more field goals the rest of the season, as Beilein rode his starters all the way to another Sweet 16. 

This has a different feel now, though, and Johns admitted Friday night that he does, too. The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder spent the summer getting stronger physically, but also mentally, augmenting his time in the weight room with sessions with a sports psychologist. He says he's learning to cast the doubts aside and focus on enjoying the moment, and Howard, who is quick to remind him  “I don’t ever want him to feel that he’s letting me down or his teammates down.” says he can see the signs it's working each day in practice.

"He always has a smile on his face, he’s always energetic, he’s always dancing," Howard said. "If you don’t like Brandon, then something’s wrong with you. He’s that type of person. ...  

“He knows that I have his best interest at heart and I’m going to continue to be teaching him and helping him get better each day, because he wants it,” Howard added.

Equally important, he’s no longer being asked to play out of position at center like he was as a freshman.

"I feel like if I bring energy, everything else will roll," Johns said. "Last year, I think I was thinking too much about my game, rather than just doing it."

Now the question is can he do it again — and again. And that’s partly why his coach pulled him aside as he exited the game for the final time Friday, Howard offering him some encouragement. Some thanks, too, for his effort and energy.

"It’s not just the ball going in the basket," Howard said. "It’s all the other ways how he affected the game. It’s great to see that. And I expect we’ll have many more nights like that with him."

With all of them, he hopes.

"This is their team," Howard insisted. "Every man is gonna have a part in our success."