Soft stretch could give younger Wolverines a prime chance to grow

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan’s next couple games aren’t exactly ones that many fans have circled on the calendar.

The Wolverines will welcome Big Sky opponent Southern Utah to Crisler Center on Saturday night. Next up will be a home tilt against Horizon League foe Purdue Fort Wayne on Tuesday. Then after winter break, they’ll wrap up the nonconference slate with a trip to Central Florida on Dec. 30.

While that stretch may not be captivating, it’ll likely provide Michigan a golden opportunity to give some of its younger players — like freshmen guards Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins and sophomore guard Zeb Jackson — more minutes before Big Ten play resumes after the new year.

Michigan guard Kobe Bufkin (2) drives past Seton Hall center Ike Obiagu (21).

“Every game is valuable for our entire team on how we can get better and improve in areas where we can really grow in,” coach Juwan Howard said Friday, singling out the need to cut down on turnovers.

So far this season, six Wolverines have appeared in every game — grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones, fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks, senior forward Brandon Johns Jr., sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II and freshman forward Caleb Houstan. Freshman forward Moussa Diabate would be on that list, but he missed the Nebraska game due to a non-COVID illness.

Collins has played in eight games and is averaging 13.2 minutes. Bufkin has been in and out of the rotation, seeing action in just two of the last five games. Jackson has received first-half minutes in two of the past three matchups after returning from a non-COVID illness.

Of the three, Collins has carved out a consistent role as the backup point guard and has played at least 12 minutes in each of the past six games. In order to show they’re deserving of more minutes, Howard said Bufkin, Collins and Jackson need to "keep doing what they’re doing."

“They're doing a fantastic job of learning the system, learning new habits, asking great questions, watching film and competing in practice,” Howard said.

“I love our young guys. Frankie has been in our rotation. With Zeb having missed a lot of time, he's now catching up and getting better, too.”

According to assistant coach Phil Martelli, Collins carries himself in a way where no moment is too big for him.

Yet, the next step for Collins, Martelli said, is to become more of a pit bull on defense and improve his shooting numbers, particularly at the free-throw line.

“I think that the insistence with him is last year when people saw him play on those national settings in the high school games, I think one of the things that came out was that he was relentless on defense,” Martelli said earlier this month. “We need that, and he has been told that. Not criticizing but let's take this up another level. Let's not be safe, let's get up there, let's put pressure on their ball as much as they're putting pressure on our ball. His growth, to me, is he has to become a better shooter.”

Howard noted the freshmen, at times, are making the same rookie mistakes — whether it’s mental errors, being in the wrong spots defensively or trying to make a home-run play instead of the right play — he made when he played at Michigan.

Some of that could explain why Bufkin has seen his playing time fluctuate over the past month after a pair of promising outings off the bench early in the season.

“Everything is a teachable moment. I’m learning from them and they’re learning from me, but at the same time you want to get them to buy in to simple,” Howard said on his radio show. “Boring is good, that’s been my slogan. The no-look passes, let’s make sure we look at the teammate, make sure he’s open and then deliver the pass. We’ve been in those situations where we want to make that no-look pass and all of a sudden you see that no-look pass going out of bounds or you assume your teammate is open.”

The mantra around the program is to get 1% better each day. It’s something the coaching staff preaches, particularly with the freshmen. The idea is the incremental improvement will make a difference and pay dividends in the long run.

To prove that point, Martelli cites how Dickinson’s freshman season unfolded after Austin Davis won the starting job heading into the year. And the hope is another young Wolverine or two will be able to follow suit.

“We look for steady progress and it only has to be one thing,” Martelli said. “Kobe is a quiet guy. OK, today in practice can we get him to be vocal? It's just one little area. …That's exactly what we're looking for from those young guys. Frankie Collins and his foul shooting … he went 2-for-2 at North Carolina. That was his 1%. Now can he go 4-for-4 in his next opportunities?

“They're not going to overnight become fabulous. Five games into his freshman year that ended up as a second team All-American, Hunter Dickinson did not start. It wasn't like Hunter came in and that's it. He wasn’t the be-all, end-all. He worked to get there by being 1% better each and every day.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Southern Utah at Michigan

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Southern Utah 7-3; Michigan 6-4

Outlook: This is the first meeting between the programs. … Southern Utah has won six in a row, highlighted by neutral site wins over Yale and Bowling Green, and its last loss came on Nov. 18 at Cal in double overtime. The Thunderbirds were selected as the preseason favorite to repeat as Big Sky champions and are led by fifth-year senior guard John Knight III (18.1 points).