The last time the Michigan Wolverines took the court in the NCAA Tournament, Juwan Howard was an assistant coach for the Miami Heat, Hunter Dickinson was a junior in high school, Franz Wagner was on another continent, and Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown were playing college basketball elsewhere.
On Saturday afternoon, they each found themselves playing a major role in the top-seeded Wolverines’ 82-66 Round of 64 win over Texas Southern. It was Howard’s first time coaching in the NCAA Tournament, though he was the focal point of a few deep runs during the Fab Five era at Michigan nearly 30 years ago. And out of the nine players that saw the floor for the Wolverines on Saturday, six of them made their March Madness debuts.
Despite lacking tournament experience, the group delivered. Smith finished with a team-high 18 points, while Dickinson added 16 points and Wagner posted nine rebounds and a career-high six assists.
“Personally, I was a little nervous at first, you know what I mean?” Smith said. “I’ve watched (the NCAA Tournament) all my life, and to finally be a part of this was surreal during tip-off. But after that, I don’t think anybody else was nervous. Me being the oldest on the team and I was the most nervous, but it was a feeling I will never forget, and obviously the job’s not done.”
With Isaiah Livers out indefinitely due to a foot stress injury, Howard adjusted Michigan’s rotation. Brandon Johns Jr. again started in Livers’ place, while freshmen Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams also saw consistent minutes off the bench.
Jackson made the most of the opportunity, scoring six points in eight minutes after shooting just 3-for-20 during the regular season. He played more than 10 minutes only once, and that came way back in early December. Jackson went the entire regular season without making a 3-pointer before shooting 2-for-4 from beyond the arc on Saturday.
Despite his inconsistent playing time over the last few months, Saturday’s stage was one Jackson had been preparing for all season.
“I’ve been seeing Zeb work hard every day in practice,” Howard said. “Every day before practice, when I’m walking past the weight room and there’s a window, I can’t help him on off days because NCAA rules, but he’s always the first guy in the gym. It says a lot about his character, about his passion for the game, about his attitude. Zeb has not walked in our building one time and had a session about ‘Me, me, me,’ (or) ‘I, I, I,’ or asked anyone to feel sorry for him.
Added Smith: “He wants to be out there and help us. Every day he wakes up at like 8:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., and gets shots up, you know what I mean? That just kind of shows the character of Zeb. He’s going to be a tremendous player for Michigan.”
Even if the Wolverines make a deep run, it remains unclear whether or not Livers will be healthy enough to play again this season. He checks in as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, so any offensive contributions that emerge in his absence are a welcomed development for Michigan. If Jackson’s Round of 64 performance is replicable, he could become a viable option off the bench this month.
But perhaps most importantly, Livers’ NCAA Tournament experience will be missed. He’s one of three players still on the team from the Wolverines’ 2018 Final Four run, and the other two — Eli Brooks and Austin Davis — barely saw the floor during the 2018 tournament.
Without Livers, most of Michigan’s roster is getting a taste of what it takes to win in March. And on the bench, Howard is learning how to coach it.