Juwan Howard explains Hunter Dickinson’s absence vs. Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Juwan Howard was unwilling to sacrifice the long-term health of his players for a better chance of winning Friday’s game.

The Michigan men’s basketball head coach decided to sit out starting center Hunter Dickinson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, as well as key backup Brandon Johns Jr. in a critical matchup in Illinois.

Both players recently contracted COVID-19 and felt the effects. Neither had practiced, at least not regularly, for the last week or so. Johns, a senior, did not make the trip for Michigan’s previous game, Jan. 4 at Rutgers. Dickinson, a sophomore, did so, saying after the game that he had 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, displacing Moussa Diabaté to center. Diabate, a 210-pound freshman, was tasked with defending national Player of the Year candidate Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound junior. Diabaté charged two early fouls. Jaron Faulds, a ride, replaced him and played 13 minutes. He, too, had missed a game and practice time after contracting COVID. Even the 6-foot-7 Jace Howard saw some defensive possessions against Cockburn, who finished with 21 points on 13 shooting.

Michigan fell to 7-7 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten.

This is Juwan Howard’s full response when asked about the absence of Dickinson and Johns.

“Those two guys haven’t had a lot of practice time, being out with COVID. Brandon actually caught it before Hunter did and he was actually feeling some symptoms. Very challenging for him. I’m not a doctor and I’m not going to explain everything about it, but thankfully it was great to see him in person and out there supporting his teammates.

“Hunter is one of the guys that caught it a little bit later than Brandon and he’s another one that didn’t get a chance to really practice. The doctor cleared them and said they were in better health. I didn’t feel comfortable putting them in a game with no practice time because all it’s going to do is put them in a sticky situation where they could possibly, thank God it didn’t, you never know how that is. the situation would end. In general, they are here to support their brothers.”

Whether either will be available for Tuesday’s home game against Maryland remains to be seen. Second-year guard Zeb Jackson was also unable to travel for the second straight game, according to a team spokesman, for “personal reasons.”

Playing with fewer personnel, Howard was pleased with his team’s effort. Nine Wolverines played Illinois, but not the typical group.

“Sometimes when you only have eight or seven guys, you end up playing your best game because the guys are so focused knowing we have to do it for each other,” Howard said.

Despite the loss, Howard remained positive.

“I am always in the trenches with this group and I am very proud of how they dealt with these unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “Come out with passion and fight.”

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