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

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

It’s been a while since Michigan coach Juwan Howard has gone to school.

But after his team’s two-week shutdown ended this past weekend and the Wolverines were finally able to get back on the hardwood, it evoked a familiar feeling.

“You have a pause throughout the summer and you're looking forward to seeing some of your old friends and new classmates,” Howard said Friday. “You're excited about putting on your fresh new clothes and fresh pair of sneakers. That's how I compared our first of practice. We all were excited like it was the first day of school.”

Howard called it a “beautiful” moment, though the on-court product wasn’t exactly pretty — and one that matched a team that had been off for 14 days.

On Sunday, Michigan coach Juwan Howard and the Wolverines will play their first game in over three weeks.

“There were some turnovers being made,” Howard said. “There was some excessive fouling. There were some wobbly legs.”

All of that is to be expected, Howard added, as No. 3 Michigan will look to shake off the rust before it visits No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday in the Wolverines’ first contest in 23 days.

The long layoff was a result of Michigan’s entire athletic department shutting down following a recommendation from the state health department after confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant.

When the pause was announced on Jan. 23, there was initially disappointment within the program. Howard’s first thought was one that many shared — “Why?” — considering his team hasn’t had a single player test positive during the season and his team has taken all proper precautions to be able to play.

Even when leadership explained the reasoning behind the shutdown, it still didn’t make it any less disheartening for the players, especially with how well the Wolverines were performing.

“I was frustrated, really frustrated,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “Obviously, I get the decision, but I felt bad for everybody on the team that has done such a good job making sure that we stay negative test-wise for all this time. I think we deserve to be playing, but there are things in life that you can't control. That's probably the most frustrating part is that you can’t do anything about it.”

Senior forward Isaiah Livers said it “sucked” and “hurt” having to sit at his apartment and watch other Big Ten teams on TV, particularly on the dates Michigan was scheduled to play. But Livers said he wasn’t “just sitting there and dwelling in a dark room” during the break.

Instead, he focused on getting himself ready to come back and sent a simple message to his teammates.

“Don't stop. Just because we're shut down doesn't mean we can't still get better each day,” Livers said. “Don't try to be lazy. Don't think this is a vacation. We're still trying to do something here. We're still trying to win championships.”

During the stoppage, the Wolverines had to quarantine and find ways to make the most of their situation. They weren’t allowed to access the team facilities, which left players to conduct their own individual film studies and workouts in their places of residence.

But none of that compares to the rigors of full-court, five-on-five action, as the Wolverines were reminded on Monday when they had their first full team practice in weeks.

“That first practice we were like, ‘Dang, it feels like a summer practice,’” Livers said. “Because we had to start over…it kind of felt like we're going into a new season.”

Livers said there have been moments of fatigue and tired legs as the players work their way back into game shape. In addition to conditioning, Livers noted the team’s timing and chemistry was a little bit off.

Howard said he and his staff haven’t “rushed the process” and have gradually been demanding more from the players conditioning-wise as they gear up for Wisconsin. Howard added he’s been in “constant communication” with trainer Alex Wong and strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson to devise a plan that he hopes will help players avoid injury.

“When you have a layoff like that, you're going to have some rust and you're also going to be winded,” Howard said. “But slowly we're getting back to each and every day trying to get that 1% better and I see it. I see light at the end of the tunnel. It's getting there.”

The Wolverines will have their share of challenges in their first contest since Jan. 22, from regaining their rhythm and feel to combating the rust. Another factor, according to fifth-year senior center Austin Davis, will be “controlling the excitement” of being back.

“We may have gotten out of the flow just a little bit, but I think that we're all definitely going to be very amped up and charged up to be able to get back onto the court,” Davis said. “I think getting over that little hump at the start and settling back in is going to be a big thing for us.”

It remains to be seen whether the Wolverines will be able to pick up where they left off and reach the same level of play before their campaign came to an unexpected halt.

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Regardless, they are ready and grateful to return, even though Howard isn’t quite sure what to expect in his team’s first game in over three weeks.

“If we had to play that game against Wisconsin outside on a playground somewhere, hey, I’m down for it,” Howard said. “I grew up playing on the playground outside in the snow. If I didn’t have two gloves, my friend would give me one of his gloves. I would have the left, he would have the right and we’d hoop.

“We can do that. Wisconsin can come outside and we'll play them out there on the playground. I’m down for whatever. Let’s do it.”

No. 3 Michigan at No. 21 Wisconsin

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.

TV/radio: CBS/950

Records: Michigan 13-1, 8-1 Big Ten; Wisconsin 15-6, 9-5

Outlook: Senior guard Chaundee Brown is one point away from reaching 1,000 in his college career. …Michigan has won five of the past seven meetings between the teams, including a 77-54 victory on Jan. 12, but is 1-3 in its past four trips to Madison. …D’Mitrik Trice is averaging a team-best 13.5 points and 3.8 assists for the Badgers, who have played four of their last five games on the road.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins