The last time Michigan took the court was a little over three weeks ago when the Wolverines defeated Purdue 70-53 in West Lafayette. The victory was Michigan’s ninth in ten conference games and kept the Wolverines atop the Big Ten standings. Boasting a 13-1 overall record and a top-five ranking, Michigan was playing as well as any team in the country.
If there was any concern at the time, it was that Purdue withheld sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic from the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Stefanovic didn’t play against the Wolverines and no other Boilermaker tested positive, but it still raised the question: Could Michigan’s season be derailed by the Coronavirus?
It turns out there was reason for the COVID-related concern, but not due to Michigan’s trip to West Lafayette. For Michigan, the enemy came from within.
The following day, Michigan announced that all of its athletic teams would be “pausing” activities, as the so-called British variant of the coronavirus had made its way not just to Ann Arbor, but into the athletic department. Suddenly, what was beginning to look like a special season was in jeopardy. What effect would pausing team activities – most critically in-person practices – have on Michigan’s season? It was a question to which even head coach Juwan Howard didn’t have an answer.
Michigan returns to action this weekend when it travels to Wisconsin. The Wolverines will undoubtedly be rusty, but how rusty? Howard conceded that it wasn’t always pretty when his team returned to practice. “There were some turnovers, there was some excessive fouling, some wobbly legs,” Howard explained, before adding, “But that’s to be expected.” When asked when he thought things would get “back to normal” for his team, Howard didn’t have an answer. Indeed, the Wolverines, like a handful of other teams around the country that have faced similar shutdowns this season, were in uncharted territory.
But for Michigan, the real question isn’t how quickly Michigan will get back to playing the way it was playing prior to its hiatus, but rather, will it get back to playing that well. While Michigan has been on the sidelines, the rest of the Big Ten has been working out the kinks in their respective games. Illinois and Ohio State, in particular, appear to have found another gear. Will Michigan be able to get it together in time to compete with the likes of the Illini and Buckeyes?
It’s a question that won’t be answered immediately, but should become clear over the next couple of weeks. As for Sunday’s game against Wisconsin? “I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Howard said, “but we’ll give it our best effort.”