Michigan basketball's COVID-19 shutdown is coming to an end. Now what?

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read
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For Franz Wagner, the past two weeks have felt like déjà vu.

Michigan basketball's sophomore wing has been unexpectedly quarantined before. The last time it happened, the Wolverines' season had ended abruptly due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Back then, Wagner stayed in Washington D.C. with his older brother Moritz Wagner, the former U-M star who now plays for the Washington Wizards.

Beginning Jan. 24, Wagner found himself quarantined again — this time because of an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 COVID variant within Michigan's athletic department.

Michigan's Franz Wagner blocks a shot by Purdue's Brandon Newman during the second half at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday, Jan. 22, 2021.
Michigan's Franz Wagner blocks a shot by Purdue's Brandon Newman during the second half at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday, Jan. 22, 2021.

“It’s definitely similar," Wagner said on the "Defend the Block" podcast with Brian Boesch. "You go into the basement and do your little workout. I told my mom the other day, it was kinda the Washington feeling that I had."

There is one key difference, though: Wagner and the Wolverines still have a season to play.

As Michigan prepares to emerge from its temporary shutdown, most are wondering — how did the two weeks off affect the Wolverines?

Before the pause, U-M was playing some of its best basketball this season. Michigan's record stands at 13-1, with a first-place 8-1 record in Big Ten play. According to KenPom.com, they are the third-best team nationally, with the eighth-best offense and the seventh-best defense.

The Wolverines made it clear at the beginning of the pause that they had no positive tests for COVID-19 (there has been no update since; the athletic department's weekly reports don't include the numbers for specific sports). But even if Michigan managed to keep its health intact throughout this period, it was still forced off the court. The Wolverines could not practice or work out together in the team facilities during the shutdown.

And while Michigan's players (and coaches) worked out individually, with members of the program filming their workouts for the rest to see, the exercise was no replacement for what the Wolverines would normally be doing.

“I mean, the biggest difference is that you don’t know what’s happening out there on the court," Wagner said. "So I think that’s a very underestimated part of the game — you have to react a lot more. It’s so different. You can run, do the Versa Climber for as long as you want, but you can really not imitate that. All the cutting, all the jumping, all the little jumps, all the quick sprints, stuff like that. You can’t really imitate. During that, you still have to focus on the game. That definitely takes energy too.

"I think those are all things that we’ve got to do — I think the coaches are going to do a good job once we can get back and get into practices to prepare for that. But yeah, we’ll see. It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

The Wolverines won't have to jump back into competition immediately. The shutdown officially ends Sunday, and their next game will be at least one week later, as a source within the program told the Free Press that Thursday's contest against Illinois will be postponed. That gives Michigan a little bit more time to prepare.

Even then, there will likely be some effect. According to Evan Miyakawa, who has a website covering college basketball advanced analytics, teams that come off a pause due to COVID-19 typically have a 2.3 point disadvantage on average in a normal tempo game.

"The longer the pause, the greater the disadvantage," Miyakawa wrote. "14 day pause is worth about a 0.5 point disadvantage. 21 day: 2.3 points. 28 day: 4.0 points."

Michigan State, which went on pause in January and went 20 days in between games, can attest to the difficulty of returning after a long shutdown. The Spartans struggled mightily in their first game back, a 30-point blowout loss at Rutgers. And while Michigan State had numerous players with COVID, the Spartans were still able to work out in small groups — something their in-state rivals have not been able to do during their respective pause.

What does this all mean for Michigan?

According to Wagner, "everybody was a little frustrated with what was happening" during the first few days of the shutdown. But the Wolverines have had time to process the news and now, they're focused on trying to "make the most out of each day."

"It’s unnerving to think of young guys sitting in a room and they finished their classes online and then they say they’re used to being in the facility at 1:30 and they have a rhythm to their day," assistant coach Phil Martelli said Monday night on the "Inside Michigan Basketball" radio show. "I read a lot and people talk about when routines are broken, that’s when people’s spirits can be broken. That’s an issue. It’s a little bit numbing, to be honest."

Will Michigan be able to return to form and play at the same level it did before pausing?

That's the question Martelli has been asking himself for two weeks.

"I spend a lot of my time wondering," Martelli said. "Boy, we were playing great basketball. And we really just have such solid individuals. Not just on the team but the coaching staff, the support staff. And my prayers are always that when we come back, and not if we come back, when we come back, that we can get that cohesiveness going right away.

"It’s been special. And it has certainly, for our fanbase, I hope that it’s provided somewhat of an uplifting moment to watch these guys play basketball because it is a joy to be with them.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball's Franz Wagner on returning from COVID-19 shutdown