CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Juwan Howard wasn’t willing to sacrifice his players’ long-term health for a better chance at winning Friday’s game.
Michigan’s head men’s basketball coach decided to sit starting center Hunter Dickinson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, as well as key reserve Brandon Johns Jr. in a critical matchup at Illinois.
Both players recently contracted COVID-19 and felt effects. Neither had practiced, at least not regularly, the past week or so. Johns, a senior, didn’t make the trip for Michigan’s previous game, Jan. 4 at Rutgers. Dickinson, a sophomore, did and said after the game he’d tested negative for COVID three times since the team returned from UCF on Dec. 31.
Both players were at State Farm Center. Johns even participated in pregame warmups, but neither saw the court in the 68-53 loss.
As a result, Terrance Williams II made his first career start, at power forward, sliding Moussa Diabaté to center. Diabaté, a 210-pound freshman, was tasked with defending national Player of the Year candidate Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound junior. Diabaté picked up two early fouls. Jaron Faulds, a walk on, replaced him and played 13 minutes. He too had missed a game and practice time after contracting COVID. Even 6-foot-7 Jace Howard saw some defensive possessions against Cockburn, who finished with 21 points on 13 shots.
Michigan fell to 7-7 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten.
Here’s Juwan Howard’s response, in full, when asked about Dickinson’s and Johns’ absence.
“Those two guys haven’t had much practice time at all, being out with COVID. Brandon actually caught it before Hunter and actually was feeling some symptoms. Very challenging for him. I’m not medical and am not going to explain everything about it, but fortunately enough it was great to see him in the flesh and out there to support his teammates.
“Hunter is one of the guys that caught it a little bit later than Brandon and is another one that didn’t get a chance to really practice. Medical cleared them and said they were better health-wise. I didn’t feel comfortable with putting them out there in a game with no practice time because all that’s going to do is put them in a tough situation where they could possibly — thank god it didn’t — you never know how that situation would end up. Overall, they’re here to support their brothers.”
Whether either will be available for Tuesday’s home game against Maryland remains to be seen. Sophomore guard Zeb Jackson also failed to travel for the second straight game for, according to a team spokesperson, “personal reasons.”
Playing shorthanded, Howard was pleased with his team’s effort. Nine Wolverines played against Illinois, but not the typical group.
“Sometimes when you only have eight or seven guys, you end up playing your best game because guys are so dialed in knowing that we’ve got to do it for each other,” Howard said.
Despite the loss, Howard remained positive.
“I’m always in the trenches with this group and I’m so damn proud of how they approached these unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “Coming out with passion and fight.”