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With opener on horizon, Wolverines ramp up prep with intrasquad 'dress rehearsal'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ready or not, here comes college basketball.

After an offseason unlike any other due to COIVD-19, Michigan’s season will start up on Wednesday when it hosts Bowling Green at Crisler Center.

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (2) has been instrumental in meshing the Wolverines' veteran players with the newcomers, assistant coach Phil Martelli said.

According to assistant coach Phil Martelli, the Wolverines have only a few practice sessions left before the opener and their preparation will ramp up with an intrasquad scrimmage Friday.

“We’re going to have a dress rehearsal,” Martelli said Wednesday. “We’ll play for real. I mean, it’ll be competitive, but there won’t be as much teaching.”

Unlike previous years, exhibitions and scrimmages against other teams aren’t allowed because of the pandemic.

Martelli noted the team has had 10-minute scrimmages since preseason practices began in mid-October but nothing of the “full scale” variety like Friday’s, which will be complete with piped-in crowd noise and Big Ten referees.

Better communication from every player on the roster is one of the main things the coaching staff will be looking for. Another is making sure the freshmen are up to speed and on the same page in terms of understanding the schemes on both ends.

“We need sharper focus defensively on what we call daily vitamins, like our ball-screen defense has to be stronger, our post defense has to be stronger. Transition, we’re OK but we will concentrate on that going into next week,” Martelli said. “Offensively, just sharpening up the execution. Does it look different with Eli (Brooks) running the point as opposed to Mike Smith?”

One thing the players won’t be able to emulate in the scrimmage, Martelli said, is the “idea of working their way through the bumps and bruises” that come in a game. That still needs to be developed.

Senior forward Isaiah Livers said even though the team’s practices haven’t been all contact, the Wolverines have taken the steps to get ready to play.

“I feel like the staff has done a great job each day of not throwing everything at you at once,” Livers said last week. “Day by day, they're teaching us a new thing to get ready for.”

Some teaching points, like one-on-one defense and transition defense, received more attention than others. Then there’s the “little stuff,” like baseline out-of-bounds plays or press defense, that Livers said the team will need to go over more with five nonconference foes up first on the schedule.

Martelli credited Livers — as well as fifth-year senior center Austin Davis and senior guard Brooks — for helping blend all the new players with the returning ones. And despite not having the chance to play in open gyms together during the summer, Martelli labeled the team’s chemistry as “very strong.”

“The off-the-court chemistry, they do like each other,” Martelli said. “I think the shared experience (of COVID) has been helpful. What do you mean I don’t go to a classroom building? What does it mean that there’s no training table? What do you mean we can’t go bowling? It’s a shared experience. I think that’s helped the chemistry.”

When it comes to on the court, Martelli said the players embrace and have belief in what they’re being taught but noted the chemistry can — and will — get better. Yet, that will only happen when the Wolverines get the chance to get out on the floor and play against someone other than themselves.

“I’ve always been a big believer in this: I think your truest chemistry occurs when you get a bloody nose,” Martelli said. “What happens when you get knocked down? What happens when, ‘What do you mean I’m not playing 40 minutes?’ What happens? That test is still to come because we will get bloodied."

It will come soon enough. After Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage, the team will be off on Saturday and will focus on individual development on Sunday all while the season opener draws closer and closer.

“We're going to knock on wood,” Martelli said, “that on Monday and Tuesday we’re going to be in preparation for a game Wednesday night.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins