EVANSTON, Ill. — For Michigan, it’s a good-news, bad-news situation.
The Wolverines are always on the hunt for difference-making players to help them pull away from teams, and they have a few of them. On Tuesday, that continued to be Jon Teske on both ends of the court, and Ignas Brazdeikis stepped up to the plate yet again. The two combined for a plus-minus of 26 in 66 combined minutes.
That’s the good news, as Michigan won on the road because of the two of them. The bad news is that their backups almost caused the Wolverines to lose.
Netting zero points and five fouls in 29 combined minutes, Austin Davis and Isaiah Livers had a plus-minus of negative-24. Virtually every time Teske and Brazdeikis came out of the game, Northwestern made a run. That’s the bad news.
Both Davis and Livers have had and will have better games, to be fair, but the near-loss brought to light one of Michigan’s most glaring weaknesses. The Wolverines have experienced players, one of the best freshmen in the country in Brazdeikis and are 9-0 thanks to a balanced team that shares the load well.
But Michigan’s depth is an issue until proven otherwise. In the rather common event that three or four players are having off nights or are in foul trouble, there’s no certainty that the Wolverines will survive. Not every opponent is going to rim out a shot at the buzzer.
“I want whatever we can get from all seven or eight guys that we’re playing,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We had to make an adjustment today, where the matchup wasn’t going well at a couple positions, so we ended up going with Jordan Poole, and he did a great job.
“We’re just going to morph to whatever we need to do. Some days we’ll give more to Jon, but it depends on how they’re playing us.”
Beilein, as diplomatic as ever, has fielded questions all season about his bench in roughly the same manner. Former top-100 recruits and true freshman David DeJulius and Brandon Johns are coming along, but don’t see the game and grasp Beilein’s system as well as the coach wants rotation players to. As a result, the duo have a combined 12 points and 56 minutes in nine games, and have played just three combined minutes in the last three games.
A lighter remaining December schedule could open up chances for them to play more, but Beilein isn’t in a hurry to throw them in the rotation just yet.
“You have a seven- or eight-man rotation, that’s not the end of the world, either,” Beilein said earlier this week. “That’s really good. You’ve got to stay healthy, but you can’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re good. We got a good seven,’ and forget about your other guys. We got to work them so that they’re really ready
“We’d love to get David and Brandon — they’re the ones that are showing things in practice — ready for Big Ten play. If we need them in foul trouble, if we need if there’s ever an injury … that’s the goal to have them ready.”
Livers, who has been a largely productive bench player with 6.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 20.8 minutes per game after losing his starting job to Brazdeikis, said Monday that he has spent plenty of time talking with Johns and DeJulius about their upcoming roles. At this time a season ago, Livers had 32 points and 18 rebounds in 10 games, and even those numbers were inflated by a blowout romp over Division-II Chaminade and garbage-time minutes in a blowout loss to North Carolina. By April, Livers started in the national championship game.
That’s not to say that Johns and DeJulius will usurp starting roles — Livers’ role was largely need-driven — but that the two could be arriving to the rotation in the near future. Don’t count on Michigan to rush things, though.
“One main thing we never do is we never cheat. We don’t cheat ourselves, we don’t cheat the grind,” Livers said Monday. “They need to work out, get better, take some time after practice to get some extra shots up. I just tell them every day to stay humble and your time will come.”
Tuesday’s win was ultimately a win, and for Michigan that’s all good news. But the Wolverines saw their lack of depth become a problem for the first time this season, serving as a reminder that Michigan needs more players ready to go by the time more Big Ten games roll around.