Juwan Howard explains Hunter Dickinson’s absence vs. Illinois

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

Michigan’s head basketball coach decided to hire Hunter Dickinson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and main reserve Brandon Johns Jr. in a crucial game in Illinois.

Both players recently contracted COVID-19 and felt the consequences. Neither had practiced for the past week, at least not regularly. Johns, a senior, did not make the trip for Michigan’s previous Jan. 4 game in Rutgers. Dickinson, a sophomore, did and said after the game that he had tested negative for COVID three times since the team returned from UCF on December 31.

Both players were at State Farm Center. Johns even took part in the pre-game warm-ups, but didn’t see the field in the 68-53 loss.

As a result, Terrance Williams II made his first career start, at power forward, pushing Moussa Diabaté to center. Diabaté, a 210-pound freshman, was tasked with defending Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound junior, the national candidate for Player of the Year. Diabaté picked up two early errors. Jaron Faulds, a walk, 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, finishing with 21 points on 13 shots.

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

Here’s Juwan Howard’s full response when asked about Dickinson and Johns’ absence.

“Those two guys haven’t had much practice time at all, because they were out and about with COVID. Brandon caught it before Hunter and actually felt some symptoms. Very challenging for him. I’m not medical and I’m not going to explain everything about it, but luckily it was great to see him in person and out there supporting his teammates.

“Hunter is one of the guys who caught it a little later than Brandon and is another who didn’t get a chance to really practice. Medically she approved and said they were healthier. I didn’t feel comfortable putting them in a game with no practice time because all you’re going to do is put them in a tough situation where they might – thank goodness not – you never know how that situation would end. In general, they are here to support their brothers.”

Whether both will be available for Tuesday’s home game against Maryland remains to be seen. Sophomore security guard Zeb Jackson also failed to travel for the second game in a row for “personal reasons,” according to a team spokesperson.

Howard played shorthanded and was happy with his team’s commitment. 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 established that we have 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 handled these unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “Coming out with passion and fighting.”

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