After long layoff, UM braces for last nonconference game at Central Florida

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

The Wolverines have been in this situation before — facing a long layoff between games due to COVID-19.

Last season, Michigan had to deal with a 14-day stoppage that paused all athletic activities in the middle of the Big Ten schedule. This time around, the Wolverines had an unexpectedly longer winter break when last week’s home game against Purdue Fort Wayne was canceled due to coronavirus issues within the Mastodons program, creating an 11-day gap between contests.

According to Michigan coach Juwan Howard, the Wolverines are doing their best to navigate these “tough times” once again.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard.

“I've always had this mindset about embrace the suck,” Howard said Wednesday. “Whatever is thrown our way, we're not gonna make any excuses for it. When we get the opportunity to play, we're always very appreciative and blessed that we're doing something that we all enjoy doing. No matter if it's two days in between, two weeks in between, we're always geared up and excited to have an opportunity to play.”

That next chance will come Thursday night in the nonconference finale at Central Florida, which will mark Michigan's second contest since Dec. 11.

Unlike most road games, though, the Wolverines didn’t travel the day before the game. Instead, the team made the decision to fly down to Florida on Monday to avoid any potential travel issues.

“With how the traveling situation has been with COVID, we wanted to try to get ahead of it,” said Howard, who noted all the players and coaches on the team are healthy.

“With how flight situations have been with a lot of the airlines with cancellations, we tried to get ahead of it, so we wouldn’t have any problems arriving here to play the game.”

The trip has also provided an opportunity for the Wolverines to develop their chemistry off the court. After practicing at UCF on Monday, the team visited the Orlando Magic training facility on Tuesday and caught up with former Wolverines Franz Wagner, Moritz Wagner and Ignas Brazdeikis.

Later that night, the players and coaching staff attended the Magic’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks and watched Franz Wagner drop a career-high 38 points. On Wednesday, the team was scheduled to practice at UCF and have an outing at Topgolf.

“It was awesome to see Franz, Moe and Iggy out there,” fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks said. “But it just gives us a chance to have even more bonding time because we're going to be around each other a lot during this trip and we have been. And there's more things in life than just basketball, so it's good to see people outside of Ann Arbor and our practice facilities. It's been nice to see how the bonds are evolving.”

Come Thursday, Brooks will be looking for the Wolverines to clean up their play in several areas before Big Ten play resumes next week. Valuing the basketball and cutting down on turnovers has been an emphasis.

Brooks also said Michigan needs to do a better job of rebounding on both ends — creating more possessions with offensive rebounds and limiting the second-chance points on defense.

While there may be concerns about rust and a loss of rhythm with the long break, Howard said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen from the Wolverines this week and how they’ve handled the extended time off.

“The most important thing is everyone being healthy and safe during these tough times,” Howard said. “The two weeks (off), we've dealt with it before last year…and we're doing our best to navigate it.”

Slam dunks

Howard said the Big Ten didn’t ask for his input before the conference updated its forfeiture policy for basketball games that are impacted by COVID-19, but he applauded the change.

Under the new rules, games not played because of coronavirus can be rescheduled, a no contest or a forfeit. A forfeit will only happen if a team has available personnel, doesn’t play and fails to demonstrate why it’s unsafe to compete.

“When I heard about it, I thought it was a great decision that the Big Ten Conference made,” he said. “It's nice to see that, overall, the leadership is thinking about the big picture.”

… According to a Michigan spokesperson, it’s possible Howard will stay in Florida and attend the Michigan football team’s Orange Bowl game against Georgia on Friday night. However, the team is expected to fly back to Michigan on Friday morning/afternoon.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Michigan at UCF

Tip-off: 7 p.m., Thursday, Addition Financial Arena, Orlando, Florida

TV/radio: ESPN2/950

Records: Michigan 7-4; UCF 8-2

Outlook: This is the return game of a home-and-home series between the teams. Michigan won last season’s meeting, 80-58, in Ann Arbor. …The Knights have won four in a row by an average margin of 19.7 points and are led by junior guard Darien Green Jr. (14.8 points). UCF’s two losses have come against Power Five competition – versus Oklahoma (65-62) and at Auburn (85-68).