'It's a blessing': Wolverines revved up for rare Christmas Day matchup

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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Michigan coach Juwan Howard knows what it’s like to play on the big stage of Christmas Day.

For the first time in a long time, the No. 19-ranked Wolverines will get a taste of that experience when they hit the road and take on Nebraska Friday under the holiday lights.

"It's truly a blessing,” Howard said Wednesday. “We're embracing it. I know a lot of us had a conversation with our guys on how many have sat back and watched NBA games on Christmas and wished and prayed they could be on a team and be that player playing on Christmas Day.

“Now the day has come and we're doing it on the collegiate level. It's going to be an exciting time to be able to go out there and do something that you love doing, and that's playing basketball.”

Michigan coach Juwan Howard, right, said his team is fortunate for the opportunity to play on Christmas.

According to Howard, the Big Ten and league head coaches had weekly Zoom calls throughout the offseason and preseason. During one of those meetings, the possibility of playing on either Christmas or the day after was brought up as the conference was trying to find creative ways to construct its schedule amid a pandemic.

Howard was asked if Michigan would be interested in scheduling a game on Dec. 25. He talked to his players about it and, according to Howard, they were all on board.

“I think it was a cool idea to incorporate college games on Christmas Day,” Howard said on his radio show this week. “A lot of kids and many student-athletes, like myself, see NBA games on Christmas and I'm sure that's been a goal and a dream of theirs. When I presented the idea to the group and said, 'Hey, there's some college games that's going to be played and possibly we can be playing on Christmas.' I asked also if they want to and they all agreed.

“Now I'm sure some probably assumed we would be playing at home at Crisler, but for us to go to Nebraska and play on Christmas Day, we're looking forward to the opportunity. It's going to be something we can always look back on.”

The Michigan-Nebraska contest will be part of a quadruple-header and one of four Big Ten showcase games, along with Wisconsin-Michigan State, Maryland-Purdue and Iowa-Minnesota. It will also mark the second time in program history the Wolverines will be playing on Christmas (first time was in 1997 as part of Puerto Rico Holiday Classic).

However, not every Michigan player was originally thrilled with the idea. After beating Toledo earlier this month, senior forward Isaiah Livers expressed his displeasure with having to play on the national holiday instead of getting the chance to leave the campus bubble and spend time with his family, one of many sacrifices the players have had to make this season.

“We're all not too excited about that,” Livers said on Dec. 9. “No knock against Nebraska, but Christmas Day I don't think anybody wants to travel away from their place.”

On Wednesday, Livers said he changed his stance and is looking forward to the matchup after having a recent talk with Howard, who played on Dec. 25 four times — all wins — during his 19-year NBA career.

“I'm not going to take away my whole statement because I truly do feel the same way but then again, it's Christmas. It's a special time,” Livers said. “Only a few guys can go down and retire from their career and say that they played on Christmas. It's something that I'm looking to add to my long list and I'm really excited for it. I know we're all excited to play on Christmas.”

That includes sophomore wing Franz Wagner, who would stay up late to catch the NBA Christmas Day games while growing up in Europe.

While the holiday is celebrated a day earlier on Dec. 24 in Germany, Wagner noted there’s a cultural difference. Players have that day off and there aren't any games going on overseas whereas in the United States, sports are put under the spotlight.

“We've just got to be happy that we're able to play with all that's going on in our country,” Wagner said. “I think having a good attitude and being grateful that we can do what we love to do, I think that's the most important thing that should be in the back of the mind of everybody. Even though maybe you want to celebrate Christmas with your family, we can do that on the court, too. I think that's the mindset we've got to have.”

Friday’s matchup will mark Michigan’s first road game of the season and first time the Wolverines will take the court since beating Penn State on Dec. 13. During the long layoff, the team had a couple days off to get away and take a mental break. When the Wolverines did practice, they focused on improving their habits and fine-tuning areas they need to work on, like one-on-one defense and closeouts.

The break also gave them the chance to watch other Big Ten teams in action and showed that — just like last season — any team can be defeated on any given night, regardless of the records.

“You saw Northwestern beat Michigan State the other day, Rutgers beat Illinois. I think that shows you there's no easy games,” Wagner said. “That's got to be our mindset coming into practice every day that there's really no off days.”

Added Livers: “Teams that were at 13, 12 (in the standings) are really challenging some top-five Big Ten teams. Every game isn't going to be an assumed 'W.' We're going to have to fight for it. Nothing is going to be given to you.”

Nebraska certainly won't be in a giving mood. The Cornhuskers traveled to Wisconsin for their conference opener earlier this week, held the Badgers to three points over the first 11-plus minutes and led by as much as 10 points before fading in the second half.

Even though the Wolverines won’t be able to exchange gifts with their loved ones on Christmas this year, they’ll still look to make it a memorable occasion and find a different reason to celebrate.

“Hopefully we can bring back a victory,” Livers said. “That's really what we're going for. That's our biggest present on Christmas Day.”

No. 19 Michigan at Nebraska

Tip-off: 6 p.m. Friday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Michigan 6-0, 1-0 Big Ten; Nebraska 4-4, 0-1

Outlook: Michigan has won four straight in the series and 14 of the last 15 meetings, with a 5-1 mark in Lincoln over that span…Nebraska is 4-2 at home, with losses to Nevada and Georgia Tech, and is coming off a 14-point loss at Wisconsin. Junior guard Teddy Allen (17.5 points) leads a Cornhusker team that features nine transfers.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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