Niyo: Johns’ play in UM’s NCAA opener a good starting point

Brandon Johns looked comfortable while playing a season-high 25 minutes in the game,…

Niyo: Johns' play in UM's NCAA opener a good starting point 1
Niyo: Johns' play in UM's NCAA opener a good starting point 2

We’ve seen it fits, but now it’ll have to come in starts.

Brandon Johns Jr. knows that as well as anyone. Yet knowing and doing have proved to be two very different things for the junior forward during his Michigan basketball career, one that has been marked by flashes of talent and long stretches of frustration.

Johns has talked openly about his struggles with building and maintaining confidence in the past. But now with an injury to Isaiah Livers opening up a spot in the Wolverines’ starting lineup, there’s an opportunity here to do more. Much more, in fact, because if Michigan is to live up to its No. 1 seed in this NCAA Tournament, Johns’ ability to live up to his potential likely will play a critical role.

And in that way, Saturday’s ho-hum tournament opener for the Wolverines — an 82-66 victory over No. 16 seed Texas Southern at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. — was a positive sign.

Johns looked comfortable while playing a season-high 25 minutes in the game, finishing with 11 points, two rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal. Afterward, Juwan Howard, who earned his first NCAA Tournament win as a head coach, said that’s exactly what he expected.

“Brandon, this is not his first time,” Howard said. “Last season, Isaiah was out with an injury, and Brandon was inserted into the starting lineup. Brandon understands … you never know when your name’s going to be called on.”

Somewhat replaceable

Only now he does, because Michigan is without its leader and arguably its best scorer, ever since an MRI last week showed a stress fracture in Livers’ right foot. The team hasn’t officially ruled the senior out for the tournament, but that’s the expectation, obviously.

And this is the reality: Livers actually might be the easiest of Michigan’s starters to replace in the lineup, based solely on the position he plays. The loss of Mike Smith at point guard, or Hunter Dickinson at center, would be even harder to cover up for Howard and his staff. Ditto Franz Wagner, with his length and two-way game, or senior Eli Brooks, an indispensable defender who assistant coach Phil Martelli has called the team’s MVP.

But that’s not to suggest this will be easy, in any way.

“Obviously, Isaiah is a big part of this team: a leader, a scorer, a defender,” said Smith, who led the Wolverines with 18 points, five assists and four rebounds Saturday. “He just does it all. Without him, it’s been tough, but we’ve been adjusting, and I think we’ve done a tremendous job so far.”

Among other things, Livers’ absence forces others into larger roles, or different ones. But by inserting Johns in his place, that minimizes it to an extent, keeping Chaundee Brown in the sixth-man role where he has thrived for Michigan this season.

“Obviously, Brandon Johns is a little bit different from Isaiah Livers,” Dickinson said this week. “They’re both very multi-dimensional players. I guess Brandon’s strengths are probably closer to the basket even though he can definitely step out on the perimeter, shoot, ball-handle, stuff like that. (Livers) is more of a bigger wing and Brandon’s more of like a stronger ‘4’ man who can really take his matchup down low and that’s where really the mismatch is.

“I think Coach Howard’s done a really good job of treating Brandon like Isaiah. Not really switching up the offense too much.”

But with Brown and Austin Davis in foul trouble early in Saturday’s tournament opener, Howard went with a lineup that included three true freshmen at one point in the first half, with point guard Zeb Jackson, forward Terrance Williams and Dickinson all out there together for about 2 1/2 minutes.

A pair of 3-pointers from Jackson, who’d shot just 3-for-20 behind the line this season, helped the Wolverines expand the lead from 11 to 17. And the minutes Jackson (eight) and Williams (11) played should build some confidence in both players if, or when, they’re called on again in this tournament, starting with Monday’s matchup against LSU.

“It was great, man,” Howard said. “It’s all hands on deck. And the young guys gave us a big lift. … Zeb and Terrance were ready to go, and they gave us a really big spark coming off the bench.”

Increasing the aggressiveness

Johns gave Michigan something, too, though. And if his inclination has been to try to do too much in the past, he seemed to do a much better job Saturday of playing within himself, while also staying aggressive offensively.

For the second straight game, Johns, a 6-foot-8 stretch four whose best minutes this season probably have come as a backup five, did much of his scoring again by attacking the basket. He drew four fouls in a whistle-happy game and finished 6-for-8 from the free-throw line, a week after going 7-for-8 in Michigan’s Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to Ohio State. So a guy who’d had 18 free-throw attempts in 23 games this season, now has 16 in his last two contests.

“He’s playing a lot more aggressive, you know what I mean?” Smith said. “He has more minutes. Me and Coach and everybody has been telling him that he has to be more aggressive now.”

Like he did in that sequence early in the second half, when Michigan’s lead ballooned to 24 points before it took its foot off the gas. He had an impressive baseline drive off a rip move, and later a steal at one end of the floor and then a corner 3-pointer at the other to put Michigan up 55-31.

They’ll need more plays like that going forward, certainly. Taking care of business against a No. 16 seed is one thing, but No. 8 seed LSU is a different challenge. Will Wade’s team will push the pace with a small-ball lineup at times, and favors a similar style of isolation ball to Texas Southern, but whereas Saturday’s Tigers ranked 225th in the country in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, Monday’s Tigers rank fifth.

Michigan’s going to need a much more effective outing from Dickinson, who had six turnovers and fouled out of Saturday’s win. But they’re going to need another strong effort from Johns, too.

“He’s a talent that not a lot of people know about,” Smith said. “If you’re a huge Michigan fan, you would know how good Brandon Johns really is. He can play. He stepped up the last couple of games and played really well for us. I’m going to keep instilling confidence in him because he’s a great player, and we can use that.” @JohnNiyo

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