Ann Arbor — Sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. kept everything the same.
Same warm-up routine. Same mindset. Same approach. Same level of confidence.
The only difference was for the first time in his career, Johns was in the starting lineup and was part of the player intros as Michigan closed out its non-conference slate last weekend at Crisler Center.
"It was kind of crazy,” Johns said after posting six points and four rebounds in the 86-60 win over UMass Lowell. “First time for everything I guess, right?”
It was also the first time this season No. 12 Michigan (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten) entered a game without junior forward Isaiah Livers, one of the team’s top scorers and outside shooters who has been ruled out indefinitely with a left groin strain.
Livers’ absence, undoubtedly, is a major void and one coach Juwan Howard said will be filled by committee for however long he’s out of action. Last Sunday, the duty was predominately shared by Colin Castleton, who set career highs with nine rebounds and three assists, and Johns, who finished with a plus-25 rating in 21 minutes.
But after Johns found out he was getting the start before the contest, Livers gave him one simple piece of advice: Play like yourself.
“Obviously Isaiah brings a lot to the team and a lot to the court,” said Johns, who added he was asking Livers questions throughout the game on what he could do better in ball screen coverages and on defensive switches.
“I know I probably can't score like 20 a night or something like that. I just want to bring energy, be solid out there, not try to do too much and just play my own game.”
Junior guard Eli Brooks, who has been one of three Wolverines to start every game this season, said there isn't much of an adjustment to make with Johns taking over Livers’ spot because the team uses so many different lineups in practice.
Still, that doesn’t mean Johns can offer everything Livers provides.
"Brandon brings something different than Isaiah,” Brooks said. “Obviously no one can replicate Isaiah's game, but Brandon does a lot of things really well. He sets screens really well and he creates a lot of space for other people and he's an elite rebounder, so he helps out a lot on that end."
Johns noted that while Livers “can shoot way better” and has a better outside game, he feels they are similar in certain aspects. They both are versatile players who are effective in areas in the post or on the perimeter and can defend guards, wings and bigs.
But the one area Johns can’t copy is Livers’ offensive production. Livers has led Michigan in scoring in a game a team-best four times this season and is averaging 13.6 points per contest, a mark that Johns hasn’t reached in 40 career games.
According to Brooks, the threat Livers poses on offense helps free up open looks for his teammates because he has become a focal point on opponents’ scouting reports. With Livers sidelined and teams not having to focus on shutting him down, Brooks said the key to overcoming that boils down to ball movement and unselfish play.
"It's just a matter of playing the right way,” Brooks said. “People are going to get shots. Coach always says the ball finds energy, so making the right play and not trying to play hero ball will be the best thing."
Howard has made it clear he doesn’t want Johns or Castleton to feel like they have to account for Livers’ production, though it appears Johns will shoulder most of the responsibility at the four. (Brooks said the two-big lineup with Castleton at forward is “good in spurts” but makes it harder to switch on defense.)
Moving forward, Howard said he wants Johns to maintain the same level of focus and simply “play the right way for the group.”
“He knows that he has to come out there and bring it,” Howard said, “whether it's effort, energy, attention to detail, staying to the game plan, being very active on the defensive and offensive boards.”
While Michigan cleared its first hurdle without Livers against a UMass Lowell team that lacked interior size, the road ahead will be more revealing as Big Ten play picks back up.
That begins with Sunday’s top-15 showdown at No. 14 Michigan State, where Johns could make his second consecutive start — and have his first real chance at contributing in the rivalry he grew up around as an East Lansing native.
“Obviously we're looking forward to it,” said Johns, who was held scoreless in two appearances against the Spartans last season. “We're going to prepare for it, but I don't think I'm going to let it change by mentality on how I come into the game every day. I think I'm going to have the same mindset, just be confident, bring energy.
“I'm just going to keep doing the same thing I have been.”