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Every night could be senior night for Michigan hoops this season

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Over the past decade, no Michigan basketball team has started more than two seniors.

This year could be different as coach Juwan Howard could potentially roll out a starting lineup that includes a quartet of fifth- and fourth-year players.

“I would say the strength of our team is we have experience, on all levels, at all positions,” Howard said this week.

Isaiah Livers

Howard lost a pair of foundational pieces in guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske from last year’s team, which had its highs and lows. But looking past their departures, Michigan has a roster stocked with upperclassmen.

Center Austin Davis and guard Mike Smith, a grad transfer from Columbia, are both fifth-year seniors. Forward Isaiah Livers and guard Eli Brooks are entering their senior seasons, as is guard Chaundee Brown, a Wake Forest transfer.

And then there’s sophomore wing Franz Wagner, who played a year of professional ball in Germany before arriving in Ann Arbor and was the team’s top player down the stretch last season.

“He doesn’t play like a typical sophomore,” Howard said. “He’s like a seasoned vet, I would say.”

The same could be said for most of the squad. Forward Brandon Johns Jr. and guard Adrien Nunez are juniors. Four of the team’s five walk-ons are seniors. Such a collection of veterans is a luxury in college basketball.

Last year, Howard inherited a team that returned two full-time starters — Simpson and Teske — and two reserves who averaged more than 10 minutes per game in Livers and Brooks.

In his second season at the helm, Howard brings back three returning starters in Livers, Wagner and Brooks, two key pieces of the rotation in Johns and Davis, and a player who made a handful of starts in Nunez. To go along with that, Howard brought in Brown and Smith, who have a combined 165 career starts under their belts.

More: Top-ranked class cements Michigan coach Juwan Howard as top-notch recruiter

“It’s great to have that experience on the team,” Howard said. “Even though some of them are new guys and some of them haven’t played together like it was last year where we had (Simpson) and Jon Teske. But pretty much we have a team that’s familiar with one another, so that’s good."

Added to the mix of seasoned pieces is a crop of four freshmen that topped the Big Ten in the recruiting rankings. Big man Hunter Dickinson figures to play a prominent role in the paint. Zeb Jackson was among three players Howard named — along with Smith and Brooks — who will get an opportunity to handle the point guard duties. Terrance Williams and Jace Howard provide depth at the forward and wing spots.

After roughly a month of working with the foursome in preseason practice, Howard lauded the freshmen for their coachability and eagerness to learn.

“All of them are very talented and super competitive,” Howard said. “They’ve asked questions, great questions. The film sessions, they’ve been super active in. We haven’t had any one feel like they’re bigger than the team.”

Despite half of scholarship players on the roster being rookies and transfers, several newcomers have brought up the team’s unity and cohesiveness.

Brown said last week he has never “been on a team this connected before” and noted his teammates’ reaction to his waiver approval made him feel like it was just as important to them. Smith had similar things to say, stating he was welcomed with open arms from the moment he committed.

“I think that's a Michigan culture thing here is that once you're in, you're all in,” Smith said last month. “Everybody treats you the same. Nobody is treated better than somebody else and the coaches always preach that. We live by that and everybody cares for you and what you bring to the table.”

Finding a way to blend all the fresh and familiar elements and make everything work is Howard’s mission. It's a process that began virtually over Zoom calls this summer and has continued to take shape since the team's campus arrival in June.

“When you have a group that wants to be at a place where they call home, you embrace it that way,” Howard said. “It hasn’t been a situation where it’s hard for me as a coach to get guys to buy into the culture.

"It’s good to see that our guys — some of them, yes, are new, but they see that our culture is real. That’s why the transition has been smooth for our new guys."

Slam dunks

University president Mark Schlissel stopped by a practice this past weekend. According to the program’s Twitter account, Schlissel spoke to the team about the “new happenings and safety protocols on campus.”

“It was a great visit,” Howard said. “We appreciate the fact that we have a president as well as other staff members that work with him doing whatever they can to keep us — all of our student-athletes, staff, coaches — healthy and safe during this pandemic.

“The testing that’s happening right now on campus is phenomenal. I know President Schlissel has a big hand in making that happen for us. The resources that are available to us have been great.”

… Michigan appears to have another game set on its schedule. The University of Central Florida released its four-game nonconference slate and it included a Dec. 6 contest at Crisler Center.

UCF announced a home-and-home series with Michigan in July, with the first meeting in Ann Arbor and the 2021 matchup in Orlando, Florida.

… Michigan signees Moussa Diabate (IMG Academy) and Caleb Houstan (Montverde Academy) were among 50 players named to the Naismith High School Boys Basketball Trophy watch list, which honors the top prep player in the nation.

The list will be cut to 25 on Jan. 14, 2021, and the winner will be announced in March.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins