Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Juwan Howard has shown a willingness to use a variety of lineups.
There’s the three-guard lineup with senior Zavier Simpson, junior Eli Brooks and sophomore David DeJulius that has been utilized several times this season.
There’s the smaller lineup with sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. manning the center position, which Howard turned to for long stretches and in crunch time against Oregon.
Then there’s the two-big lineup that features senior center Jon Teske and sophomore center Colin Castleton, with Castleton sliding down and playing at forward.
It’s a look Howard provided a glimpse of in the regular-season opener against Appalachian State. And it’s one he turned to again last weekend against Presbyterian with Johns out sick and junior forward Isaiah Livers exiting early with a muscle strain.
While former coach John Beilein rarely played two big men at the same time, it didn’t take long for Howard to think about a Teske-Castleton frontcourt tandem.
“I've looked at Colin at the four early on in the summer when we were just doing some summer workouts,” Howard said after the 86-44 win over Presbyterian. “Colin is a guy who plays the four and five. He’s a smart player, has a high IQ.”
Heading into the season, Castleton said his biggest focus was becoming a more versatile defender and improving his footwork and motor so he could effectively guard multiple positions.
According to Teske, that area of growth is what allows the pairing to work when they’re on the floor together.
"Defensively him and I can switch,” Teske said. “He's very good on the perimeter as well, keeping guards in front and rebounding and blocking shots. Then offensively he's still just coming around. As a sophomore, he's still getting that experience and just getting in there and being more aggressive.
“He's gaining confidence every day in practice. Coach gives him the trust to go out there and play the four and five. He's just got to go out there and have fun. We believe in him, we trust him to do the right thing and that's what he does.”
Howard noted having Castleton at the four gives the Wolverines an advantage both on the offensive and defensive glass. It also gives them another rim protector and defender who can disrupt pick-and-roll situations with his active hands.
Against Presbyterian, the Wolverines outscored the Blue Hose by 18 points over the roughly 12 minutes Teske and Castleton were both on the court. There was also a five-minute stretch late in the second half where redshirt junior center Austin Davis and Castleton played together, increasing the lead by five points.
Despite the different dimension Castleton provides, Howard added he needs to not try to do too much on offensive end when playing out on the perimeter.
“I just want him to know this — keep it simple,” Howard said. “He doesn't have to overdribble, overhandle. Just make the right play. The plays that we call are set up for him to either shoot, drive it or pass it.”
Depending on the severity of Livers’ lower-body injury, Howard could deploy the two-big lineup again in Sunday’s non-conference finale against UMass Lowell.
Even when Big Ten play resumes after the new year, it’ll remain an option for a Michigan team that has been outscored in the paint, 100-64, and outrebounded, 74-66, in two conference games.
“I think it’s great as far as versatility, and on the offensive end it’s good too, because we have a great high-low game, and me and (Teske) can both shoot the ball,” Castleton said earlier this season. “We can spread the floor out and we’re both two really big bodies on the glass.”
No matter how often — or how seldom — Howard decides to roll out Teske and Castleton together moving forward, Teske will always be up for it.
"He (Castleton) is a very skilled passer. He can shoot a little bit, do a little bit of everything,” Teske said. “We both can pick-and-pop, dive to the rim. We play off each other. It's something we might see more often, maybe we won't, but I enjoy playing with another big like that.”