Freshman Cole Bajema maximizes his minutes in Michigan's lopsided win
Ann Arbor — Coach Juwan Howard admitted there have been times when he left Crisler Center and wished he could’ve gotten his reserves more minutes.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday as all 14 Wolverines who were in uniform saw action in No. 14 Michigan’s 86-44 blowout win over Presbyterian.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the lopsided contest was freshman guard Cole Bajema, who turned in an efficient performance with a career-high nine points in 11 minutes.
“It's awesome just getting out there and getting a chance to play with my teammates,” Bajema said. “It was a good game to get everybody in, get everyone in a groove.”
Like most freshmen, Bajema said he has been getting used to the speed of the game at the college level and credited his teammates for being “super encouraging” whenever he has had his number called.
Those opportunities, though, have been scarce due to Michigan’s recent seven-game stretch against top-50 teams and the fact there aren’t many minutes trickling down at the two and three positions past junior guard Eli Brooks, sophomore guard David DeJulius and freshman wing Franz Wagner.
But with two Wolverines sidelined — sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. was out with an illness and junior forward Isaiah Livers exited early with a lower-body injury — and Michigan (9-3) taking control of the contest early, that opened the door for more playing time for the bench players.
As a result, Bajema appeared in his fifth game and received double-digit minutes for the second time this season. And despite the sporadic playing time, Bajema believes he has been trending in the right direction.
"Definitely, just getting used to being on the court is one thing and then getting my confidence out there playing with my teammates,” Bajema said. “It's all a journey, but you get used to it. It's been really good and positive so far.”
In addition to the speed of the game, Bajema noted one of the biggest adjustments has been adopting the next-play mentality Howard wants all the Wolverines to play with.
Bajema said when he first arrived on campus, he would worry too much about doing something wrong. And when he did, that would stick in the back of his head and hinder him.
"If I get the opportunity to get out there, act like you've been there before and stop worrying about mistakes that you might make or are making,” Bajema said. “Playing with a clear mind is what I intended to go into for this game. Playing with more of a clear mind, stop worrying about the mistakes and get on to the next play, that's helped a lot.”
While some freshmen may struggle to knock down shots even if they were good shooters in high school — whether it’s getting shots off quicker or adjusting to faster and bigger defenders — that hasn’t been the case for Bajema.
After drawing a foul on a drive and making two free throws late in the first half, he made three baskets — a layup, jumper and 3-pointer — within a four-minute span late in the game to finish 3-for-4 from the field.
That improved Bajema’s numbers to 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting (2-for-4 on 3-pointers) in 26 minutes this season.
"He's just got to be aggressive,” senior center Jon Teske said. “He did a good job of getting ready for a game like this and he was able to play a lot. He's got a smooth jump shot and he can get to the rim. He showed that."
Above all, Bajema has shown a positive mindset throughout the process, according to Howard.
“I know we all coach the game in different ways, but I have different terminology. It's probably different from what he experienced when he was in high school and also the AAU circuit,” Howard said. “I love the fact that he has this great attitude and each and every day coming into practice, being ready to work and to learn.
“I'm not surprised that he was ready to come out and play today. He's always ready to play. I just can't play 15 players.”
NASCAR driver Erik Jones, a Byron, Michigan native and lifelong Michigan fan, was on hand for Saturday's game.
Jones said he tries to attend as many basketball games as he can around this time of the year, from late December to early January, during NASCAR's offseason. He also usually gets to one football game each season and this year it was the rivalry game against Ohio State.
While Saturday marked his first trip to Crisler Center this season, Jones has still kept tabs on the Wolverines.
"It's been a good year," Jones said. "New coach, he's been pretty impressive to start off. Hopefully we can keep it going and have a good run."
After the game, Jones got the chance to meet with Howard and presented him with an autographed NASCAR helmet.
"Juwan is a little bit different than what we had," Jones said, referring to former coach John Beilein, "but I think he's really in tight with the players. I think that's what aligns and makes it work. He really understands the player and makes it all work."
The victory was Michigan’s second this season by at least 42 points, joining the team’s 43-point win against Houston Baptist.
… Presbyterian’s 15 first-half points, 44 total points and 28.3 percent (17-for-60) shooting are the lowest totals allowed by Michigan this season.
... Per 247Sports, Michigan will host four-star forward Terrance Williams for an official visit on Dec. 28.