It’s hard to shake the feeling that Michigan’s first three games were more like glorified scrimmages or exhibitions.
Playing inside an empty Crisler Center sets the tone, but Juwan Howard and his bench are in the early stages of figuring this whole thing out. They came out sharp on Wednesday night en route to an 84-65 win over Ball State, avoiding the sort of letdown that plagued them against Oakland, but Howard was still tinkering.
After a botched set play to end the half, the Michigan coach was picked up by Big Ten Network cameras walking Chaundee Brown through the set before heading to the locker room. Normal in a preseason scrimmage, odd in a regular-season game.
Howard’s management of his rotations has only added to that preseason feeling. The Michigan head coach is trying to get a look at every angle, whether it’s for COVID reasons or general early-season uncertainty. Michigan’s starting lineup hasn’t changed through three games, but Howard has leaned on more than two-dozen different lineup combinations. The five players who lead the team in minutes — Mike Smith, Eli Brooks, Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers and Hunter Dickinson — don’t start as a group and they didn’t even share the court together until the final seconds of overtime against Oakland.
The second and third players who got up off the bench against Ball State — Brandon Johns and Zeb Jackson — didn’t see the floor in the second half until garbage time. It’s clear that Howard doesn’t have this team figured out — what coach in the country does? — but Michigan is officially out of mid-major tune-ups. The Wolverines have to find that chemistry quickly with UCF and NC State next in line to head to the Crisler Center.