ANN ARBOR — Late in the first half of a tight game, Juwan Howard shouted for his five starters to come to the sideline for an impromptu pep talk before a pair of free throws.
What did Howard say?
Freshman Jett Howard deferred that question to his veteran teammate, graduate transfer Jaelin Llewellyn.
“I think he was mostly just like, ‘You guys gotta play harder. And bring it on the defensive end and don’t let the offense leak into the defense.’”
Howard smiled and added, “Yeah, he’s gonna translate the clean part because I ain’t want to say exactly what he said. But that was basically the gist of it.”
Michigan beat Jackson State on Wednesday night 78-68 to improve to 5-1. But it’s clear the Wolverines are not satisfied with the product on the court, and they have work to do before the competition intensifies.
Rebounding, a concern entering the season, has indeed been a problem for Michigan. Jackson State, like Ohio on Sunday, was severely undersized compared to Michigan but still hit the glass hard. Jackson State had 15 offensive rebounds to Michigan’s five.
Slow starts have been a theme early in the season. “I’m guessing we’re just a team that takes some time to get into the flow of the game,” Jett Howard said. “We’re trying to fix that.”
The outside shooting has been…OK. Michigan’s at 31.8 percent for the season. Given the quality of the shot attempts, that figure should be higher. The starting backcourt of Llewellyn and sophomore Kobe Bufkin are a combined 7-for-46 from 3.
Juwan Howard wants his players to keep firing. He is big on breeding confidence. And despite some of the frustrating misses on Wednesday, especially early, he pointed out that Michigan finished 12-for-30 from deep (40 percent).
The defence, at least statistically, is the bigger issue. The effort on that end is perhaps why Howard, for the second straight game, had all five starters on the bench at one point in the first half.
One of those starters, Hunter Dickinson, acknowledged on Sunday what was happening. On Wednesday, Llewellyn and Jett Howard said they hadn’t considered that any message was being sent.
Juwan Howard said it was more about utilizing his depth and giving his starters some rest.
Regardless, the Wolverines have some questions entering the Thanksgiving break.
“We’re trying to get in rhythm on the offensive end and defensive end and hopefully we’re better by January,” Jett Howard said.
How about by next week?
Fifth-ranked Virginia, 5-0 with wins over ranked teams Baylor and Illinois, visits Crisler Center on Tuesday for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The next day, the Wolverines leave for London, where they’ll face No. 15 Kentucky on Dec. 4. The Big Ten opener, at Minnesota, follows. The Wolverines play No. 1 North Carolina in Charlotte on Dec. 21.
“It’s early in the season,” Howard said. “I’m sure a lot of teams like us are not playing their best basketball. We will get better and better, game by game.”
In a long season judged most by what happens in March, the Wolverines obviously have time. But their best win to date, at least according to computer rankings, is 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 then return to the gym to start preparing for a tough stretch.
Llewellyn spoke about what needs to improve.
“I think just continuing to work on our defense and playing hard,” he said. “Communicating is a big area of emphasis. We’re trying to focus on it in practice. But a win’s a win and we can learn a lot from wins and losses so we’re taking it step by step.”
With the season underway and about to heat up, those steps might have to be a bit bigger.