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Michigan basketball is back.
After their two-week shutdown ended this past Sunday, the Wolverines will play at Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon — their first contest since Jan. 22.
Three weeks ago, Michigan was barreling toward a Big Ten title and a projected top seed in the NCAA tournament. Now, there is more uncertainty than ever facing the program.
Michigan,ranked third in the nation, remains in first place in the Big Ten but has played fewer games than every team except last-place Nebraska.
How many conference games will the Wolverines have to fit in between now and the Big Ten tournament, slated to begin March 10? And can the Wolverines even reach the same level of basketball they were playing before the pause began?
No one seems to know the answers to either question.
"I have seen some rust," said coach Juwan Howard on Friday. "But that's expected. But our guys will continue to work each and every day to improve. We trust as a staff that come Sunday we’ll be ready to play. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but from start to finish, we’re going to give our best effort. As far as the scheduling goes, as far as I’m told, it’s in the works. I’m taking one game at a time, and that’s focusing on Wisconsin this Sunday.”
In their first virtual meeting with reporters since the shutdown began, Howard and several of his players expressed their frustration with the timing of the shutdown — and also expressed their concern about the possibility of finishing out their 20-game conference schedule over the following three weeks.
“I was upset, just because we were playing such great basketball," said forward Isaiah Livers. "You take something away from all your brothers, your family. Something you love to do. But it was for a greater cause, I understand. I respect the (athletic director). The reason, the decision, it was a great decision."
Things have not been easy since U-M returned to basketball activities this past Sunday. During the break, the Wolverines (which did not have a single player test positive) had to quarantine and were unable to access the team facilities. That meant improvised workouts within their place of residence — and, as Howard said, "not being able to touch a basketball."
While the Wolverines were relieved to finally return to the hardwood this week, with Howard likening the first day of practice to the first day of school, the on-court product was not pretty.
“Well, there were some turnovers being made," Howard said. "Some excessive fouling. Some wobbly legs. All that is expected when you haven’t been able to work out, play basketball, been sitting in your apartments, studying, having Zoom calls with professors and tutors, haven’t been able to get in the gym.
"When you have a layoff like that, you’re gonna have some rust. Gonna be winded. Slowly getting back to each and every day trying to get that 1% better and I see it. I see light at the end of the tunnel.”
The first objective for the Wolverines was to return to game shape. Thursday's game against Illinois was postponed, which meant they had exactly one week to prepare for Wisconsin. Howard emphasized that he has not "rushed the process," instead focusing on his team's conditioning and "adding a little extra here and there."
"When you have a pause like that and you haven’t played or touched a basketball for 10 plus days, all I can recall, it will take you four or five days to get out of shape," Howard said.
Howard said he has been in "constant communication" with head trainer Alex Wong and strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, with the trio creating a plan that Howard hopes will help players to avoid injury.
"At the end of the day I don’t want to see any of our guys get these nagging injuries that, knock on wood, can happen," Howard said. "You're talking about knees, Achilles, back, groin, hamstring.”
What makes this situation especially complicated, though, is the schedule. Even if Michigan returns to the same level of fitness it had before the shutdown, it will likely face the possibility of having to cram their remaining 11 conference games into just over three weeks. And if league precedent is any indication, that could lead to NBA-style scheduling quirks like potential back-to-back against a single opponent — as Nebraska will do against Maryland on Feb. 16 and 17.
Both Howard and Livers seemed wary about the potential of playing the full conference schedule.
“It doesn’t sound fun," Livers said. "As much as I would like to, we don’t have robotic legs. I wish we didn’t feel soreness or I would be all for it, but that would be very sore, then going into the postseason, I don’t know if that would be the best idea.”
“That would be very challenging," Howard said. "It would be challenging on a lot of levels. Let’s start with school. We’d miss a ton of classes. Let's also look at the mental health standpoint. I’m an open book. This is our guys’ team and their schedule and also their college experience. Would they want to play 11 games in 22 days? And then from a health standpoint, I’m not sure if it would be smart because of the long layoff. And rushing and playing that many games in a short amount of time does not give the human body time to recover, which at the end of the day, we’re not machines, we’re humans. And that’s not the type of pressure that I want to place on our student-athletes at the time.
"Unfortunately, this is a very uncomfortable year, crazy times that we’re all dealing with, we’re pivoting in different directions but at the end of the day we’ve got to be smart. If the main thing is about our health and safety, let’s make sure that’s the main thing. Is it smart to play that many games in that many days?”
However things play out, Michigan seems grateful just to be back playing basketball — even with a frenetic month ahead.
“We’re trying to win every game that we can," said wing Franz Wagner. "We’re gonna go out to Wisconsin on Sunday, confident and ready to roll, hopefully get a win and focus on the next time. All the uncertainty, things that we can control is what we gotta focus on the most. We’ll see how many games we can reschedule. That’s the only way to go about it, I think.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan basketball is trying to shake off the rust in return