The Michigan basketball team would have had its hands full at Illinois tonight even if the Wolverines had been full strength and practicing uninterrupted the last several weeks. As it stands, Juwan Howard’s squad could still be down a player or two.
U-M has not had a full roster for a while now. The Big Ten postponed home games with Michigan State and Purdue, opportunities to bolster the NCAA Tournament resume, lsat week. In fact, U-M hasn’t played a game since losing at Rutgers Jan. 4.
Howard hasn’t made and won’t make any excuses, but it’s been a tough stretch.
“At this moment, we have seven players and one coach available. But … you never know how it can change tomorrow,” Howard said Thursday morning. “You put your head down, lay on the pillow and say a nice, beautiful prayer for everyone — which I love doing. I feel it’s the right thing out of my heart to do.
“You wake up in the morning, you get the text from the trainer or call from a trainer as far as what we have available and who’s ready to go.”
It appeared Friday morning that Michigan might be down a player or two. It’ been confirmed, though, that the Wolverines should have enough to field a team.
Michigan has been dealing with COVID issues since the beginning of the new year. Terrance Williams, Brandon Johns and Frankie Collins missed the game at Rutgers, as did little-used backup Jaron Faulds. U-M was short the Big Ten mandated seven scholarship players for the MSU and Purdue contests and practiced primarily with backups and non-scholarship players.
“We’ve had very unorthodox practices as of late,” Michigan coach Howard said. “We haven’t been able to have 10 players in practice in the last week or so. But we’ve always been able to figure out how we can … with those who are available to practice, what can we do to get them better and also get them ready?
“These are the challenging times we all are dealing with. Some programs have dealt with it; we’re not the first. 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.”
Especially heading into a hornet’s nest like Champaign. No. 25 Illinois has a center in Kofi Cockburn who can match up head-to-head with sophomore Hunter Dickinson (should he be available). The Fighting Illini are still stinging after begging for a share of the Big Ten title with Michigan last year (but failing to get it) and will undoubtedly play with a chip on their shoulder.
Win or lose, the Wolverines will show up with their best effort, Howard said.
“It’s remarkable just to be around a group that is not making excuses or crying out for a pity party or anything like that,” Howard said. “We’re rolling up our sleeves and staying together and staying locked in on the big picture.”
That includes looking forward to the games with Michigan State and Purdue. Though they have yet to be rescheduled, Howard insisted they would be.
“We are going to play those games, and we’re looking forward to playing them,” the Michigan coach said. “I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but the Big Ten and our athletic directors will all get together, and we’ll figure it out like we did last year.”
First, though, is the task at hand, and an Illinois team out for revenge.
There’s definitely a hatred, because I feel like we should have another Big Ten [championship] banner hanging in our rafters and it’s not there,” Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins said. “With the way they [Michigan players] talk on social media, with the way our fans talk about them, I definitely feel a strong hatred.”
Illinois is a 9.5-point favorite over Michigan heading into tonight’s contest.