With Ball State visiting, Michigan basketball still figuring out lineups

Michigan has only played two games. But in this abbreviated season, that’s a full 40 percent of its nonconference schedule. Michigan hosts Ball State on Wednesday. Just 11 days later, Big Ten play begins.

Coaches have less time to figure out their rotations — who deserves to play and which players work best together.

Juwan Howard is clearly still tinkering.

He’s deployed 25 different lineups through Michigan’s 2-0 start. The same five Wolverines have started both games and the same 10 have seen the floor. The combinations, however, are a work in progress.

Howard wasn’t interested in discussing his process in a video conference call with reporters on Tuesday evening.

“I’ll tell you right now, we don’t have enough time on this Zoom, nor do I want to spend an hour explaining to you how we’re going to break down our rotation,” he said. “But I will just leave you with a few words: all hands on deck. We’re going to need each and every guy on our roster this season.”

That fits Howard’s motto of “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” He wants every player, including the walk-ons, to be prepared. To Howard’s credit, he coaches every player that way. It also makes sense to have a deep bench this season, given the possibility of players missing time for a positive COVID test.

Howard has subscribed to that early on. Nine players are averaging double-digit minutes.

Mike Smith and Eli Brooks have started in the backcourt along with forwards Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers and center Austin Davis. Three players have averaged more minutes than Davis: Chaundee Brown, Hunter Dickinson, and Brandon Johns Jr. Terrance Williams II and Zeb Jackson have also seen the court in meaningful spots, giving Michigan a legitimate 10-man rotation.

Howard has substituted based on a script: Brown and Dickinson have entered together at about the same time in each of the two first halves Michigan has played. He has substituted based on matchups: Davis’ minutes have been limited, no doubt, because neither Bowling Green nor Oakland were particularly big. And Howard has ridden the hot hand: Dickinson played the final 16 minutes on Sunday because he was a scoring machine.

“I look at how the game is being played and which individuals are going to help give us the best chance to win,” Howard said bluntly.

Only two scholarships players have yet to see the court: junior Adrien Nuñez and freshman Jace Howard.

There was talk leading up to the season about the 6-foot-8 Johns playing center as part of smaller lineups. That has come to fruition. There have been 17 minutes where neither of Michigan’s true centers, Davis and Dickinson, have been on the floor. Either Johns or Williams have held down the center spot in their place.

According to kenpom.com, Michigan’s starting lineup is the most frequent, used 24 percent of the time. The next four most popular lineups include Dickinson and Brown.

It’s worth watching what Howard does on Wednesday against Ball State (7:00 p.m., BTN). The Cardinals have a pair of 6-foot-10 players as well as a couple of 6-8 guys. They’ve played just once so far this season, losing a heartbreaker 74-73 at Northern Kentucky on Nov. 25. The Cardinals allowed a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left and missed two potential game-winners.

Ball State went 18-13 last season (11-7 in the Mid-American Conference) and finished the year at No. 116 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. They’re currently at No. 131 on kenpom. Oakland, by comparison, is at 311.

Michigan’s competition only improves as Big Ten play approaches. We’ll see if Howard wants to get his regulars into game shape or continue to reach further down his bench.

Depth is often misunderstood. Many coaches like depth in case of injuries or foul trouble. When it comes to winning a particular game, some feel that having a predetermined seven or eight players is best.

There are exceptions. In 2014-15, Kentucky used a 10-man rotation. For a chunk of the season John Calipari deployed a true platoon system, subbing out five players at a time. Kentucky won its first 38 games before losing in the Final Four.

It’s unclear exactly where Howard stands. Last season, he usually played eight guys, though not always the same eight. Was that his preferred number or was it dictated by his personnel? It was his first season, so it’s impossible to say. This year’s team, with a strong freshman class, definitely has more college-ready players.

This season, there’s a chance a rotation player or two could be ruled out at the last minute. Howard understands that.

“This is COVID-rules, fellas,” he said. “Game-by-game, all hands on deck.”

More Michigan basketball content:

Hunter Dickinson and the ‘DMV boys’ spark Michigan’s late comeback

Michigan’s Isaiah Livers on feisty exchange with Juwan Howard: ‘He was challenging me’

Michigan basketball, thanks to a frosh, wins in OT to avoid huge upset vs. Oakland

Isaiah Livers, Michigan basketball co-captain, on why he knelt during national anthem


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