It’s been 15 days since the Michigan basketball team took three busses full of coaches, players and staffers down to Indianapolis for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. The Wolverines, who have been in town longer than any other team at this point, haven’t returned since, and they’re not planning on coming home any time soon.
“Honestly, I haven’t even thought that far,” junior forward Brandon Johns said Thursday, when asked what he’s looking forward to do once his team’s stay in the Indianapolis bubble is over. “We’ve become kinda comfortable with living in the hotel and just getting really comfortable. “So honestly, I haven’t thought that far beyond — past the tournament — because we’re locked in.”
A No. 1 seed, Michigan took care of business — unlike the other eight Big Ten teams in the tournament — the first weekend, beating No. 16 seed Texas Southern, 82-66, and No. 8 seed LSU, 86-78. Sunday evening, the Wolverines will take on No. 4 seed Florida State with a trip (down the street) to the Elite Eight on the line.
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Michigan has been able to attend classes virtually, practice, hold team meetings, hang out in the hotel and, well — outside of an excursion here or there — that’s about it. The Wolverines visited the Indianapolis Zoo Tuesday and hit some balls at Top Golf Wednesday evening. Last week, they got to play badminton and other yard games at Victory Field, home of the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While enjoyable, those activities are a far cry from the normal life of a college student, but the Maize and Blue aren’t complaining. They packed for a month. This is what they signed up for.
“Most of the time we’re in our rooms on our floor, getting some rest, having some meetings in our meeting rooms,” Johns said. “I think that’s about it.”
This has been a closely bonded team all season long, due to the culture that was built by head coach Juwan Howard and his staff, a strong one that was built by John Beilein before them.
The 16 remaining squads in the tournament have to spend more time with each other now than ever before, even with how unprecedented this season has been. Nobody would admit it publicly, but that can be taxing. It doesn’t seem to be for Michigan, though. They’re embracing it.
“Juwan and our support staff have done a terrific job making sure the players take care of their school work, tutoring meetings, and then handle basketball joyfully when it’s basketball time,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said when appearing on 97.1 The Ticket. “We’re one of 16 teams left in the country, and we’re allowed to enjoy it.”
It helps having Howard, who has not only been a college basketball player, but one who won 13 NCAA Tournament games in three seasons … at the school he’s now coaching for. Johns said having the former NBA All-Star as a mentor during these times is paying off big time.
“It’s really helpful, honestly, because he knows how it goes,” Johns explained. “He gives us advice when we need it, he knows how we’re feeling at certain times, so he knows what to say when we’re feeling down on ourselves or when it kinda feels like a struggle. So it’s just really helpful, because he just knows what he’s talking about. You can ask him anything at any time.”
There’s plenty of time to pepper him with questions.
Those 15 days ago, when the Wolverines got off the bus and entered their hotel for what they were hoping would be a long stay, All-Big Ten senior forward Isaiah Livers was healthy enough to play. But after re-aggravating a stress injury to his right foot in the team’s first Big Ten Tournament game, he was ruled out indefinitely and has yet to return.
They’ve had to adjust to that, too.
“It’s been interesting. Obviously, we have to find a different way of play without him, but it’s something that we can adjust to,” Johns said. “We’ve been working on different sets and just trying to keep him positive. And he helps us on the court as well, especially when we get subbed out or something, he talks to us on the sideline just to help us with what he sees out there and what we can do better. It’s like we have another little coach there on the side.”
Perhaps nobody has had to pivot more than Johns, who has started all three games while Livers has been out. The East Lansing, Mich., native says his confidence is at an “all-time high,” and he’s performed admirably, averaging 8.3 points per game in that stretch, compared to 4.5 points per tilt for the year. He’s been more aggressive, too, having attempted 20 free throws (16 makes) and increasing his field goal attempt total by the game.
“I’ve just been trying to focus more on just playing my game, rather than trying to play something else that I’m not,” Johns said. “I’m just trying to do what I know how to do, and that’s just give effort all the time on the court and working my hardest — take the open shot, be aggressive, draw fouls as much as I can — just doing anything I can to help my team win.”
If the Wolverines keep the run going and stay in Indy even longer, something else will be thrown their way, and they’ll have to adapt again. But they believe they’re up to the task.
“We have to be able to adjust to anything that happens, especially even in life,” Johns said. “So we’re trying to keep it rolling, which I think we have been.”
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