Michigan basketball misses opportunity to iron out combinations with cancellation

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

With Tuesday’s home game being canceled due to COVID-19 issues within Purdue Fort Wayne’s program, it gave Michigan a little more rest and a chance for more family time as it heads into winter break.

But on the flip side, it cost the Wolverines — a team with as many new faces as returning ones — another opportunity to tinker with different lineups and find the combinations that work best, which is an ongoing process with the resumption of Big Ten play on the horizon.

Head coach Juwan Howard and Michigan next play UCF on Dec. 30 in Orlando.

“I think it's still something that we're getting a feel for. I don't think we have it 100% right just yet, but I think it's coming with time,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said this week. “We're still trying to figure things out.

“I think the starting five has a good feel for each other right now. I think we've got a good chemistry coming off that win versus Southern Utah. People are clicking and playing to their strengths and that's good.”

While the Wolverines have seemingly settled on a starting lineup, there are a couple of players who have been in and out of the rotation. Sophomore guard Zeb Jackson is getting up to speed after missing the first six games with a non-COVID illness. Freshman guard Kobe Bufkin can play multiple positions and has shown flashes. Both bring something different to the floor.

But given freshman guard Frankie Collins, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II and senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. all have carved out consistent roles and coach Juwan Howard typically goes eight to nine players deep, how Jackson and Bufkin are utilized could depend on the opponent and certain matchups.

For example, Michigan used 14 different lineups against Southern Utah. That included some three-guard looks that featured Jackson at the two and Bufkin at the three.

“It’s definitely an adjustment,” assistant coach Howard Eisley said this week. “We’re trying to find the best playing groups that complement one another. We still are working through that. I think one of the strengths of our team is that we have guys that can really step up on any given night.”

Eisley noted there are going to be times where one player has an off night and it’ll open the door for another Wolverine to step in and produce. The key, though, is to make sure the players don’t hold a “me vs. the next person” attitude and everyone is “pulling in the right direction.”

Even as minutes may fluctuate and some players might not be counted on in every game, the coaching staff’s message to the Wolverines has been consistent since the start.

“There's going to be so many story lines with the fluidity of the rotation and some guys will get hot over a period of time, but our thing…is we're going to embrace the next man's success,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said on WTKA’s “The Michigan Insider” on Wednesday.

“One night it might be Zeb, the next night it might be Eli (Brooks), the next night it’s going to be Frankie, that next night it's going to be Hunter. The attitude that we have collectively as a team is you’ve got to understand and embrace your role, and when your number is called, be ready to step up and play.”

Slam dunks

After Tuesday’s game was called off, the Wolverines decided to hold a two-part intrasquad scrimmage.

The first 20-minute portion pitted the starters against the backups, with the starters coming out on top, 39-16. Dickinson led the winning team with 14 points (7-for-11 shooting) and Williams paced the reserves with seven points (3-for-6 shooting), according to stats provided by a Michigan spokesperson.

The teams were switched up for the second 20-minute portion — which included 10 minutes of zone defense and 10 minutes of switching every screen — and was a closer contest with the Blue team winning, 46-42. Brooks tallied 17 points and was 4-for-5 from 3-point range to lead the winners, and freshman forward Caleb Houstan scored 14 for the losing squad. Houstan shot 6-for-10 from deep throughout the entire scrimmage.

… Michigan’s pair of talented freshman forwards — Moussa Diabate and Houstan — are trending in different directions in ESPN’s latest 2022 NBA mock draft, which was released Wednesday.

Houstan is projected to be selected at No. 19 overall by the Chicago Bulls and Diabate is pegged as an early second-rounder at No. 37 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In last month’s mock draft, ESPN had Houstan as a lottery pick at No. 6 while Diabate wasn’t listed.


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins