Phil Martelli wasn’t going to make up a story about team bonding, about teammates who didn’t spend much time together suddenly becoming best friends while standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. No, the truth is that these Wolverines were already a tight-knit group. That was only reinforced during Michigan’s 10-day European trip.
The Wolverines returned to Ann Arbor last week in time for the start of the fall semester on Monday. Next week, they’ll resume workouts: individual instruction and some basic offensive and defensive concepts for the eight hours per week allowed by the NCAA. The first official day of practice is September 26; the first game of the regular season is on November 7.
Michigan got a head start on all of that during its trip to Europe earlier this month. The NCAA allows such trips every four years, and the Wolverines took advantage of this summer, traveling to France and Greece for sightseeing and three, well, 2.5, exhibition games.
Staff members said it was a great experience, socially and culturally. The players behaved and hopefully created memories for a lifetime. In addition to the games, Michigan was allowed an additional 10 practices before the trip. Those were invaluable, Martelli said.
As for games, the Wolverines went 2-1 against pro teams, though neither game will count toward their record.
Against a high-quality veteran Provence team in Paris, Michigan lost 86-68. Martelli said that the Wolverines were tired after their trip. His 23 turnovers didn’t help. Michigan won their next game, against Olympiacos’ junior team in Athens, 95-62.
The third and final game, at Mykonos, lasted just one 20-minute half, with Michigan outscoring AO Mykonou 49-38. Martelli said the opponent suffered injuries during training camp that limited the number of available players. (A spokesperson for AO Mykonou said the shortened game was due to a power outage; that was fixed before notice, Martelli said.)
Martelli said the games confirmed to the coaching staff that Michigan is deep. Head coach Juwan Howard said before the trip that he planned to play with everyone. He did it: All 11 available scholarship players saw significant minutes. Michigan has a lot to work on in the coming months.
“We need to communicate on both ends of the floor at a much higher level,” Martelli said. “We will share the ball, you will not play here if you do not. We’re a work in progress defensively. We have to improve there.”
He said starting point guard Jaelin Llewellyn and her backup, Dug McDaniel, have a good handle on the playbook, but not quite yet, and that the team clearly has “guys with energy.”
“The biggest thing in the 2.5 games was that we didn’t have to introduce Hunter (Dickinson) on every play,” Martelli said of the star center. “There was this sense of balance on the ground.”
Freshman Youssef Khayat met the team early in the trip, in Paris. It was the first time he had met someone involved in the program. Howard welcomed him with a hug.
“We’re so glad to have you here,” Howard told him. “Finally.”
“Finally,” Khayat replied.
Martelli said Khayat is quiet but adapts. His English is not a problem, despite having grown up in Lebanon and having played the last few years in France. However, he could not be cleared to play because he needed to pass a physical exam required by the university. (He has since done it and is ready to practice).
“We told him he doesn’t come here to be Franz 2.0,” Martelli said, referring to Franz Wagner, a recent German import. “He comes here to be Youssef.” There are similarities, though, and that’s a good thing for Khayat and Michigan.
Joey Baker, a transfer graduate from Duke, also made the trip but did not play. He is still recovering from hip surgery and was not ready for contact.
Even so, Michigan generously substituted during the European tour. Consider two players who redshirted as freshmen last season, Will Tschetter and Isaiah Barnes. Tschetter, Martelli said, was the 10th or 11th man in a game, but made four baskets in one quarter the next. Barnes came off the bench in the first game and was a “real spark.”
Once the season starts, Martelli could see something similar happen, where a player who wasn’t a factor in one game plays a big part in another.
It will help to have a steady hand at point guard, and Michigan has that in Llewellyn. Martelli praised his speed, his ability to get into the lane and his “pure” outside shot. He will have to adjust to Michigan’s defensive style and not retreat to the top of the bracket, but that will come with practice time.
“He’s an adult on the court,” Martelli said. “That’s comforting for all of us.”
As for the freshmen, McDaniel stood out. “He’s not afraid,” Martelli said. Defensively, he showed the ability to be a pest at times in Europe. Tarris Reed Jr., who will replace Dickinson, played better as the trip went on. Jett Howard, who started at small forward during the trip, showed off his outside shooting (he hit four 3-pointers in Athens), but needs to avoid questionable shots early on the shot clock. Forward Gregg Glenn III has been a tough competitor.
But this trip was not just about basketball. It was an opportunity for the players to bond before the pressures and grind of the season began. Martelli saw which players were adventurous: given the choice between the pool and the sea, Tschetter was the first to take the plunge into open water.
The Wolverines were already close. He distanced himself from campus distractions that became more apparent.
“They travel in packs,” Martelli said. “And they’re loud.”
That’s a good thing in the veteran coach’s eyes. A loud team, he said, is a connected team.
The Wolverines hope their experience abroad this summer will help them make even more noise in America this winter.