Piscataway, N.J. — Over the past month, sophomore forward Colin Castleton’s playing time had taken a back seat during the meat of the Big Ten schedule.
That didn’t stop coach Juwan Howard from trusting Castleton and turning to him in a key spot on Wednesday night.
With junior forward Isaiah Livers out with a right ankle injury and sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. struggling with foul trouble, Castleton came through to help Michigan prevail, 60-52, and hand Rutgers its first loss of the season at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"It's not hard (to stay ready),” said Castleton, who played 10 minutes off the bench for the first time since the Dec. 29 nonconference finale against UMass Lowell. “You've just got to come prepared every day to work hard with a good mindset. I think the big thing in basketball is people put their head down if they're not playing.
“But I get told every day and Coach Juwan preaches it every day that you stay ready. His big keyword is being positive, and you never know when your name is going to get called.”
After sitting the entire first half, that moment came for Castleton 53 seconds into the second half when Brandon Johns picked up his third foul and Rutgers was starting to build a wave of momentum.
The Scarlet Knights opened the half with the first six points and were on the verge of taking a double-digit lead that would’ve blown the roof off the packed RAC. That’s when Castleton stepped up with a momentum-stopping, and-1 layup and free throw that started a tide-turning 17-4 run for Michigan (17-9, 8-7 Big Ten).
During the spurt, Castleton corralled an offensive rebound, drew a foul and made two free throws. He grabbed three defensive boards. He blocked a shot. By the time Castleton checked out with 9:09 remaining, Michigan turned a nine-point deficit into a four-point lead that it never relinquished.
“Colin gave us a good boost,” senior guard Zavier Simpson said. “When he comes in the game, he shows his emotion, shows the winning positive spirit when he gets the and-1 (layup) by dapping the bench.
"Being encouraged and being energized means a lot because some guys get in the game, get an and-1 and haven't played the whole first half they just think, 'Ah, it's all right.' But that really makes a difference when you see someone on the court being so energetic.”
Sophomore guard David DeJulius said the spark Castleton provided in a rowdy environment was critical “because when you’re on the road you’ve got to bring your own energy.”
Just as crucial was the job Castleton did on the defensive end while playing at the four. During Michigan's stifling second-half effort, his length appeared to bother Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights made just three field goals during his 10-minute stint on the floor.
“His presence at the rim has always been good since he got here,” DeJulius said. “We had a big lineup and he was able to guard the perimeter. He guarded it very well for us. He was huge both offensively and defensively for us.”
Castleton's outing was just the latest in a string of strong performances from Michigan's second unit that has helped the Wolverines rip off four straight wins.
It followed Johns' 14-point effort against Indiana, DeJulius' seven-point, seven-assist game at Northwestern and redshirt junior center Austin Davis' recent stretch of steady contributions.
"They've got a terrific bench," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "All those guys are capable of playing a lot of minutes at a lot of places. He (Castleton) came in, he's got tremendous length and he gave them some good minutes."
Since Big Ten play resumed after the new year, though, those minutes have been hard to come by for Castleton. He didn’t play in two of Michigan’s past five games, including the Feb. 1 meeting against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.
"There are role changes every time," Howard said, "depending on situations."
But the decreased role never soured Castleton's attitude. Instead, he continued to prepare himself for his next opportunity.
Howard cited how Castleton went out and put up extra shots on his own after Sunday's win against Indiana at Crisler Center while the arena was being cleaned.
“Usually some guys will go back to their dorm. They'll sulk. They'll be pointing fingers at everyone else but themselves,” Howard said. “Colin has always been positive throughout the approach…You never know when your name is going to be called on.
“But when you have the positive mindset and you're staying ready and staying locked in, you're feeding energy and cheering for your teammates and knowing what's happening on the floor, buying in to film, coming in on off days, getting extra work in for yourself, getting shots up like he did after the game, I feel comfortable rolling with him.”
On Wednesday night, Castleton got the call. And he delivered.
“We're so happy for him because he works so hard,” DeJulius said. “He deserves this and much more."