ANN ARBOR — At the end of the first half of a tight game, Juwan Howard shouted to his five starters to come to the touchline and improvise a motivational speech before two free throws.
What did Howard say?
Rookie Jett Howard assigned this question to his veteran team member, transfer graduate Jaelin Llewellyn.
“I think he was mainly saying, ‘You guys need to play harder. And put him on the defensive and don’t let the offensive spill over to the defence.’”
Howard smiled and added, “Yes, he’ll translate the clean part because I don’t want to say exactly what he said. But that’s basically it.”
Michigan beat Jackson State Wednesday night 78-68 and improved to 5-1. But it’s clear the Wolverines aren’t happy with the product on the court, and they have work to do before the competition intensifies.
Rebounding, a problem coming into the season, was indeed a problem for Michigan. Jackson State, like Ohio on Sunday, was significantly undersized compared to Michigan, but still hit glass hard. Jackson State had 15 offensive rebounds to Michigan’s five rebounds.
Slow starts were a theme early in the season. “I guess we’re a team that needs some time to get into the flow of the game,” said Jett Howard. “We’re trying to fix it.”
The shooting outside was… OK. Michigan at 31.8 percent for the season. Given the quality of shot attempts, this number should be higher. Llewellyn and sophomore Kobe Bufkin’s starting backcourt is a 7-for-46-of-3 combination. Inaccurate passes – not delivered to the shooters’ pockets of ideas – often contributed to this.
Juwan Howard wants his players to keep shooting. He is great at breeding confidence. And despite some frustrating misses on Wednesday, especially early on, he pointed out that Michigan finished 12-for-30 from deep (40 percent).
Defense, at least statistically, is the bigger problem. The effort to do so is likely the reason why Howard had all five starters on the bench for the second straight game at some point in the first half.
One of those starters, Hunter Dickinson, admitted on Sunday what was going on. On Wednesday, Llewellyn and Jett Howard said they had not considered sending any message.
Juwan Howard said it was more about taking advantage of his depth and giving his starters some rest.
Regardless, the Wolverines have a few questions ahead of Thanksgiving.
“We’re trying to get into a rhythm offensively and defensively and hopefully we’ll be better in January,” said Jett Howard.
Or maybe next week?
Fifth-ranked Virginia, 5-0 with wins over ranked teams Baylor and Illinois, visits the Crisler Center on Tuesday for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The next day, the Wolverines leave for London, where they will face No. 15 Kentucky on December 4. The Big Ten opens in Minnesota. The Wolverines will play North Carolina’s No. 1 in Charlotte on December 21.
“It’s the beginning of the season,” Howard said. “I’m sure a lot of teams like us don’t play their best basketball. We will get better game by game.
In a long season, judged largely by what happens in March, the Wolverines obviously have time. But their best win so far, at least according to computer rankings, is a win against a Pittsburgh team that might be… bad. Michigan followed it up with a dud against Arizona State.
The Wolverines will take two days off for Thanksgiving and then head back to the gym to start preparing for a heavy stretch.
Llewellyn talked about what needs to be improved.
“I think we’re just continuing to work on our defense and tough game,” he said. “Communication is a big pressure area. We try to focus on this in practice. But a win is a win, and we can learn a lot from wins and losses, so we take it step by step.
Due to the ongoing season and the approaching heat, these steps may be slightly larger.