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Michigan basketball adjusts on the fly to schedule changes in 'unpredictable world'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Isaiah Livers expected a curveball to be thrown at some point.

Given college basketball’s toughest opponent is a global virus, the senior forward knew it was only a matter of time when — not if — COVID-19 would disrupt Michigan’s schedule.

“It's an unpredictable world right now that we live in,” Livers said after Wednesday’s 91-71 win over Toledo. “You know it's going to happen. We had one. If there's more down the road, you never know. But like Coach (Juwan) Howard says, always be prepared for the change and be ready to adjust."

Michigan had to adapt on the fly this week when its ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against North Carolina State was called off two days before tip. According to Livers, the team knew the matchup was unlikely to be played after the Wolfpack had to cancel a game on Saturday due to a positive test.

Livers said the Wolverines officially received word from Howard that N.C. State wouldn’t be making the trip to Ann Arbor before they were about to watch film on Monday. Michigan filled the hole with Toledo a day later, which forced the Wolverines to shift gears and prep for a different opponent on short notice.

Michigan's Franz Wagner (21) and Isaiah Livers (2) compared the sudden matchup with Toledo to an NCAA Tournament game.

After Michigan joined the lengthy list of teams to feel COVID-19’s effects and have a game scheduled or postponed three weeks into a delayed season, Livers can’t help but worry about where things are headed.

“I'm a little bit concerned about it,” Livers said. “I don't want to dwell on it and think about it because I feel like that's negative thoughts and that just puts me in between. I want to be all in with this team right now, so I try to focus on the game film we just had and focus on our next opponent. Other than that, as a natural human being you're going to be a bit worried, but you've just got to lock in."

That can be easier said than done given the uncertainty and fluidity that comes with playing college basketball amid a pandemic — one that has left teams scrambling and altering schedules on a daily basis.

“I imagine for every player that it's very difficult,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “Everything is so crazy. We don't know when we play. We don't know if we practice every day — maybe someone is positive? All that kind of stuff. I think it plays a little bit in my head all the time, but I can't control any of that. I just try to stay safe, wear my mask when I'm outside.

“On the basketball court, nothing really changes for me, but there's definitely a lot of things outside of basketball that can be in your head and you've got to make sure that you're sane once you step into the building."

For Wagner, that means regularly staying in touch with people he can’t be around as the Wolverines continue to live in a mini bubble on campus and are tested six days a week under the Big Ten’s protocols.

“I'm a very social person so I think that's important for me,” Wagner said. “I can talk to my friends and family that unfortunately I can't see right now. I think that's a big part and then meditating, yoga and that kind of stuff helps my mind unplug.”

However, calls for pausing the season have grown louder in recent days, with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski the latest to speak out. Following Tuesday’s loss to Illinois, Krzyzewski said it doesn’t feel right to be playing given the current conditions, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths across the country.

Krzyzewski expressed concern for the well-being of student-athletes as shutdowns across the sport have forced players to isolate themselves for extended periods of time. He also noted many players won’t be able to go home and see their families for Christmas, a sacrifice Livers expressed his displeasure about.

“I wouldn't want to get started on that right now. We're all not too excited about that,” Livers said of Michigan's Dec. 25 matchup. “No knock against Nebraska, but Christmas Day I don't think anybody wants to travel away from their place. That's a different story we're not going into with college athletes not being paid. But still, you've got to think about it as being grateful and be blessed to even have an opportunity to be on the court because this season could have not happened.”

Howard wasn’t aware of Krzyzewski's postgame comments but reiterated his main concern is the physical and mental health of his players and staff — “Basketball is last,” Howard noted — and he checks on everyone daily.

Howard praised his players for doing everything they can to put themselves in a position to play as well as the sacrifices they have made along the way, like limiting their social interactions and not getting to fully enjoy a typical college experience.

“They want to play basketball. They wanted to have a season,” Howard said. “I talked to each and every one of them. I wasn't, as a coach, pressuring them nor was it coach-driven. It's about them and whatever they want to do. If our guys say, 'Hey, Coach. You know what? I want to opt out.' I respect it and I support it.”

Howard said if he had faced today's crazy and chaotic conditions during his playing days at Michigan, he still would’ve suited up.

“I feel that's some of the best therapy for me, personally, because you're seeing other teams that are out there competing,” Howard said. “Being a college student, you come here to get an education and also to compete on that floor. When it's taken away, it's a huge void.”

The Wolverines nearly experienced that empty feeling this week. Instead, they received an appreciative reminder and a dress rehearsal for how to handle the disorder that could strike again.

“We all tell each other, 'Hey man, you’ve got to be grateful for every game we play because you never know,’” Livers said. “The next game could be canceled, and last year's tournament got taken away from us. I've been talking about being grateful for each day. Be blessed, wake up, be excited to come to practice, be excited to see your brothers because that could all go away with three or four tests.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins