Michigan basketball on track to return to action, but a stiff challenge awaits

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan coach Juwan Howard isn’t quite sure how many Wolverines will board the bus and travel to Champaign.

All Howard knows is Michigan is on track to have enough bodies by Big Ten standards — a minimum of seven available scholarship players — to play Friday’s matchup at No. 25 Illinois as scheduled, unless something changes.

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) is averaging 22 points and 12.5 rebounds per game this season, and had 12 points and seven rebounds in last season's victory over Hunter Dickinson (background) and the Wolverines.

“At this moment, we have seven players and one coach available,” Howard said Thursday morning, noting a couple of players have returned to practice and others have come out of quarantine. “But you never know how it can change tomorrow. You just never know.

“Before I lay on a pillow, I said a nice, beautiful prayer for everyone, which I love doing and I feel it's the right thing out of my heart to do. Then wake up in the morning and you get a text or call from the trainer as far as what we have available and who's ready to go.”

The Wolverines (7-6, 1-2 Big Ten) haven’t played since the Jan. 4 loss at Rutgers due to COVID-19 issues within the program. A round of testing last Friday night produced an undisclosed amount of positive results, and Howard declined to share numbers on how many players felt ill and how many were in protocol due to close contact.

The outbreak led to Michigan falling below the Big Ten’s roster minimum and home contests against Michigan State and Purdue were postponed as a result. Howard is confident both of those marquee matchups will be made up at some point, saying the Big Ten office and school athletic directors will “figure it out like we did last year.”

More: Five things Michigan basketball needs to improve to get back on track

Due to the shorthanded roster, the Wolverines haven’t been able to go five-on-five in practice over the last week. According to Howard, that’s led to “very unorthodox” sessions and the coaches have had to get creative to help the healthy players get ready for the Fighting Illini.

Howard commended those who have been able to practice for “staying locked in on the big picture” and trying to find ways for the Wolverines to become a better team. He also praised all the players and staff members for maintaining a positive attitude during the situation instead of throwing a pity party.

“These are the challenging times that we all are dealing with. Some programs have dealt with it. We're not the first,” said Howard, noting Illinois had its own COVID pause this season. “Unfortunately, when it's you then you get a chance to see how challenging it really is.

“It's frustrating when you don't have all your guys. When you do have all your players out there, we take it for granted. But until you experience a COVID situation and you have to go through the COVID protocols with guys being out, you just embrace the suck, roll up your sleeves and do your best.”

If Michigan is healthy enough to return to play, it certainly won’t receive a warm welcome from an Illinois team that thought it deserved a share of the Big Ten regular-season title last season. That certainly will add fuel to the fire of the Illini (12-3, 5-0), who have reeled off five straight wins by 10-plus points and manhandled the Wolverines in last year’s meeting.

At the center of Illinois’ attack is an imposing force in Kofi Cockburn, the preseason Big Ten player of the year and double-double machine who is putting up bigger numbers than a year ago. He’s averaging 22 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, marks that rank fifth and third in the nation, respectively.

As if stopping Cockburn isn’t hard enough, he’s surrounded by an array of shooters and some of the top 3-point threats in the Big Ten. Veteran guards Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison are all shooting at least 38.8% from beyond the arc and are averaging two made 3-pointers per game. Plummer also leads the conference with 45 made 3-pointers.

Then coming off the bench is another veteran guard who can knock down shots in Da’Monte Williams, whom Howard called a “glue guy” that makes winning plays on both ends. And that’s not even factoring in the threat of starting guard Andre Curbelo, who hasn’t played since Nov. 23 due to the lingering effects of concussion.

Add in the fact that the Fighting Illini are one of the top rebounding teams in the nation and are even better defensively than a year ago, they’ll provide a daunting test for a Michigan team coming off a COVID break.

“They do a tremendous job of playing inside out,” Howard said. “They're one of the top teams in this league.

“We're looking forward to playing the game (Friday). We're happy that we get the opportunity to go out there and compete, and I’m so proud of our guys with how they’ve handled the situation.”

Michigan at Illinois

Tip-off: 9 p.m. Friday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Illinois

TV/radio: FS1/950

Records: Michigan 7-6, 1-2 Big Ten; No. 25 Illinois 12-3, 5-0

Outlook: A win would give Juwan Howard his 50th victory, making him the fastest coach to reach that mark in program history. … Illinois has won the last three meetings between the teams. The Fighting Illini rank third in the Big Ten in scoring offense (80.5 points) and scoring defense (65 points). They also rank second in the nation in rebounds per game (43.7) and rebound margin (plus-14).


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins