Deep rotation pays off for Juwan Howard, Michigan during undefeated start
Earlier this month, Juwan Howard said it would take an hour for him to break down Michigan’s rotation.
Instead, the second-year coach summarized his approach in a few words.
“All hands on deck,” Howard said. “We're going to need each and every guy on our roster this season.”
That has rung true so far. During Michigan’s 6-0 start, all 12 of the team’s scholarship players have seen action in at least three games. That number increases when including walk-on forward Jaron Faulds, who has made two appearances.
With a shortened nonconference slate, Howard wasn’t in a rush to trim down his rotation. The Wolverines primarily utilized a 10-man rotation during their five non-league contests, with junior guard Adrien Nunez and freshman wing Jace Howard being the odd men left out.
Over that stretch, Michigan used the same lineup to open the game and second halves, with grad transfer guard Mike Smith, senior guard Eli Brooks, sophomore wing Franz Wagner, senior forward Isaiah Livers and fifth-year senior center Austin Davis as the starters.
Senior guard Chaundee Brown and freshman center Hunter Dickinson were the first ones off the bench, a common trend that saw Brown serve as the sixth man and Dickinson as Davis’ backup who would play nearly twice as much. Junior forward Brandon Johns Jr., freshman forward Terrance Williams II and freshman guard Zeb Jackson all also saw first-half minutes.
“I think that it’s very hard for other teams to keep up with a nine-man, 10-man rotation that when somebody goes off the court, there's really no let-up,” Wagner said after last week’s win over Toledo.
“And I'll be honest, it keeps everybody on their heels. You've got to be on your A game because if you don't bring it, there's a guy right after you that's going to bring it and he's going to be ready.”
By going 10 deep throughout the nonconference slate and having numerous players who are capable of playing multiple positions, Brooks added it puts an emphasis on each Wolverine to take advantage of their minutes.
“If you make the right plays and you're playing well, you're more likely to stay out there,” Brooks said this month. “Just try not to force anything and play your game. The beauty of having a deep bench is there's not really that big of a drop-off.”
But after Davis suffered a right foot injury and Dickinson replaced him in the starting lineup, Howard tightened up the rotation in the Big Ten opener against Penn State. The Wolverines leaned on seven players throughout much of the game before Williams was used late in the second half as a defensive substitution.
With Dickinson the only healthy scholarship big man on the roster, Michigan turned to smaller lineups with Johns and Williams at the five to fill in the gaps and give Dickinson a breather against the Nittany Lions.
“We don't put positions on guys. We just have basketball players,” Howard said. “There are going lineups being shifted depending on the situation, depending on the team that we're playing, depending on personnel that we're matching up against or that we want them to match up with us. We're going to be mixing and matching a lot, but I love the fact that we have versatile guys on our roster.”
Michigan has used 49 total lineups through six games, which may seem like a lot but is a small fraction of the 792 possible five-man combinations that exist with 12 scholarship players. The Wolverines used 15 different lineups against Bowling Green, 16 against Oakland, 17 against Ball State, 14 against Central Florida, 14 against Toledo and 13 against Penn State (many lineups were repeated, like the starters or ones after the first substitutions in each half).
Four starters — Brooks, Livers, Smith and Wagner — are averaging at least 27 minutes per game, while Brown and Dickinson are averaging over 20 minutes. Davis and Johns are also receiving consistent playing time at 12 minutes.
With only so many minutes to go around, Howard has credited his players for accepting their roles. For example, Brown went from being a starter at Wake Forest to a key reserve at Michigan and Williams went from being the star in high school to a bench piece who’s battling to see the court.
“It's not easy to ask guys who have been thee guy on their high school team, the No. 1 option, or have been a starter at another Power Five conference, or have been the main scorer for their team at a different college to sacrifice,” Howard said. “It's tough and challenging to sacrifice when you're asked. It's easy for the next man to sacrifice but when it's your turn, are you ready? So far, I've had a group that has bought in to do whatever it can to help the team.”
Howard said he’s constantly evaluating the rotation for what will give Michigan the best chance to win and he will give everyone on the roster an opportunity to play.
But given the fluid situation of playing during a pandemic, Howard noted he doesn’t have a set number in mind for the rotation and he plans to be flexible with his lineups in a season where depth is vital.
“This is COVID rules, fellas,” Howard said. “Every guy on our roster, we're going to need them all.”