'We're not machines': Michigan grapples with prospect of playing 11 games in 22 days

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

If the Big Ten’s goal is to have every basketball team play 20 league games, then Michigan’s schedule could get very busy very soon.

For the No. 3 Wolverines to reach that mark following their two-week shutdown, they would have to play 11 games in 22 days starting with Sunday's contest at Wisconsin. And that’s assuming the conference would even be able to juggle its league slate to make it work while avoiding any further coronavirus disruptions.

When posed with that possible scheduling scenario on Friday, coach Juwan Howard expressed his concern with jamming that many games into a three-week window.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard and senior forward Isaiah Livers (2) are wary of playing 11 games in 22 days to complete their Big Ten slate.

"That would be very challenging,” Howard said. “It would be challenging on a lot of levels. Let's start with school. We'd miss a ton of classes. Let's also look at the mental health standpoint. This is our guys' team, their schedule and their college experience. Would they want to play 11 games in 22 days? And then from a health standpoint, I'm not sure if it would be smart because of the long layoff. Rushing and playing that many games in a short amount of time doesn't give the human body time to recover.

“At the end of the day, we're not machines. We are humans. That's not the type of pressure that I want to put on my student-athletes at this time. Unfortunately, this is a very uncomfortable year, crazy times that we all are dealing with. We're pivoting in different directions but at the end of the day, we have to be smart. If the main thing is about our health and safety, let's make sure that's the main thing. Is it smart to play that many games in that many days?"

More: No. 3 Michigan shakes off rust ahead of Sunday's meeting with No. 21 Wisconsin

Michigan (8-1 Big Ten) has played the second-fewest league contests entering play on Friday, just ahead of Nebraska (0-8), which had five games postponed last month due to COVID-19 concerns.

The Wolverines had the same amount of games called off during the athletic department’s shutdown. Four games were postponed during the stoppage (at Penn State, Indiana, at Northwestern and Michigan State) while a fifth (Illinois) was put off as part of the team’s return-to-play plan after the pause.

Howard said the decision to postpone the Illinois game was made by athletic director Warde Manuel and Big Ten assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny, who oversees men’s and women’s basketball scheduling. Howard added rescheduling options are in the works, though he’s not sure how many games will be made up and what the schedule is going to look like.

It’s quite possible it could include some NBA-style quirks. Following a COVID-related pause, Penn State played four games in seven days, including two road contests over a three-day span. Not to be outdone, Nebraska is in the midst of an eight-game, 15-day stretch that features a back-to-back against Maryland on Feb. 16 and 17.

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Like Howard, senior forward Isaiah Livers isn’t fond of the idea of playing every other day to get to 20 conference games heading into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

“That doesn't sound fun,” said Livers, who had the Illinois game “circled” and hopes it gets rescheduled. “As much as I would like to, we don't have robotic legs. I wish we didn't feel game soreness or else I would be all for it.

“Going into the postseason, I don't know if that would be the best idea. But again, I'm not the one making decisions, so I’ll have to suck it up if that's the case.”

One possible solution to alleviate such a schedule crunch is to cancel the Big Ten tournament and use that week to play makeup games, but it doesn't appear that's being strongly considered. Several Big Ten coaches, including Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, have said in recent weeks the plan is for the conference tournament to begin on its scheduled March 10 start date, three days after the regular season is set to end.

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No matter what, scheduling decisions will need to be made by the Big Ten office soon. And however it shakes out, sophomore wing Franz Wagner believes the Wolverines will be able to handle whatever is thrown at them.

“I think we thrive on challenges,” Wagner said. “I think our coach has done a good job of challenging us in every single practice. In the summer, we had tons of conditioning. From a mental standpoint, I think we're prepared for any obstacle that's in our way. It's definitely not going to be easy but that's how you win championships. It's not supposed to be easy.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins