Juwan Howard explains Hunter Dickinson’s absence vs. Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Juwan Howard wasn’t willing 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 seat starting center Hunter Dickinson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and key reserve Brandon Johns Jr. in a critical game at Illinois.

Both players recently contracted COVID-19 and have been feeling the effects. Neither had trained, at least not regularly, in the past week. Johns, a senior, did not travel to Michigan’s previous game, Jan. 4 at Rutgers. Dickinson, a sophomore, did so and said 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 the State Farm Center. Johns even took part in the pre-match warm-ups, but neither saw the pitch in the 68-53 loss.

As a result, Terrance Williams II made his first career start, as a power forward, slipping Moussa Diabaté through the middle. Diabaté, a 210-pound freshman, was assigned to defend National Player of the Year nominee Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound junior. Diabaté picked up two early fouls. Jaron Faulds, a walk over, 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, who finished with 21 points on 13 shots.

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

Here is the full response from Juwan Howard, when asked about the absence of Dickinson and Johns.

“These two guys haven’t had a lot of practice time, being out with COVID. Brandon actually caught it before Hunter and was actually experiencing some symptoms. Very difficult for him. I’m no doctor and I’m not going to explain everything about it, but luckily it was great to see him in the flesh and out there supporting his teammates.

“Hunter is one of the guys who caught it a little later than Brandon and he’s another guy who hasn’t had a chance to really practice. The doctor cleared them and said they were in better health. I didn’t feel comfortable putting them out there in a game with no practice time because all that’s going to do is put them in a tight spot where they could possibly — thank goodness that doesn’t was not the case — you never know how this situation would end. Overall, 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 also did not travel for the second straight game for, according to a team spokesman, “personal reasons.”

Playing shorthanded, Howard was pleased with his team’s efforts. 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 determined to know that we have to do it for each other,” Howard said.

Despite the loss, Howard remained positive.

“I’m still in the trenches with this group and I’m so proud of how they approached these unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “Going out with passion and fight.”

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