Michigan basketball remains healthy.
But the ongoing pandemic has already affected the Wolverines’ season.
On Wednesday night, Michigan beat Toledo, a team that was not on the schedule— as recently as two days ago.
The Wolverines were supposed to play North Carolina State as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Instead, the Wolfpack were forced to cancel their second consecutive game due to COVID-19 issues. And within 24 hours of that, U-M announced that it would play the Rockets for the first time since 1983.
It was Michigan’s first brush with the pandemic-induced uncertainty that has surrounded college basketball this season.
For the most part, the Wolverines felt good about how they adapted to this week’s changing schedule.
“We talked about, this is how the NCAA tournament’s gonna be, that’s kind of how we approach everything,” Franz Wagner said after Wednesday’s 91-71 win. “And I think we were well-prepared for it. Obviously, we can do a lot of things better, but at least we knew what their main ideas were, how to play and what their main schemes were.”
Forward Isaiah Livers said the Wolverines had an idea that Wednesday’s game would be in jeopardy after the Wolfpack pulled out of Saturday’s road game against Connecticut following a positive test from a member of the traveling party.
“It seemed like (coach Juwan Howard) was ready for it,” Livers said. “It seemed like he had Toledo on the back of his mind already ’cause there were rumors. Coach Howard, he’s always ready, he’s always ready for the sudden change. Anything that happens, he’s gonna prepare us.”
One could hardly disagree with Livers’ assertion.
Despite the quick change, the Wolverines looked dominant at times Wednesday. They raced to a 18-point halftime lead and put together arguably their most complete performance of the season, as five players reached double digits in scoring and the defense shut down Toledo’s high-powered attack.
After the game, Howard credited Chris Hunter, the team’s director of basketball operations, for helping schedule the Rockets. He also praised the team’s video coordinator, who had “a lot of work.”
“Having a one-day prep was a great test for us and our staff,” Howard said.
The Wolverines treated the occasion as if it were the NCAA tournament, which features a similarly abridged turnaround. And Wagner felt the experience was “not too different” from the team’s usual routine.
At the same time, Michigan was well aware of the circumstances that led to Wednesday’s game.
Livers admitted he is “a little bit concerned” about the current trajectory of college basketball, as teams deal with COVID-induced shutdowns, cancellations and postponements. Wagner, meanwhile, acknowledged the difficulty of holding a season in isolation from others, in addition to the sheer unpredictability of it all.
“Everything’s so crazy,” Wagner said. “We don’t know who we can play, if we can practice every day, maybe someone’s positive. I think it plays a little bit in my head all the time, but I can’t control that. Just try to stay safe, wear my mask when I’m outside.
“On the basketball court, nothing really changes for me. But there’s definitely a lot of things outside of basketball that can be in your head, and you gotta make sure that you’re sane.”
For now, Michigan can count itself among the lucky programs that have not had a positive test. Still, the Wolverines have steeled themselves for the possibility of another postponement as they turn their attention toward Big Ten play. (First up, Penn State on Sunday in Ann Arbor.)
“It’s important that we just stay ready,” Livers said. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen. We had one. There could be more down the road; you never know. But like Coach Howard says, always be prepared for the change, and be ready to adjust.”