The Michigan basketball team was missing a familiar face last weekend, when junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. sat out of the Wolverines' 88-73 win over Central Michigan to nurse an ankle injury.
Hardaway had started every game of his career until the ankle sidelined him, an 81-game streak. Freshman Caris LeVert started in his stead, scoring a career-high nine points.
"Tim did a few things yesterday. He will do more today," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We'll find out more, but we really don't know until he stretches himself out a little more in practice. … Tim felt good, but it wasn't a basketball practice, yet."
The Wolverines travel to Evanston Thursday to take on Northwestern in their first Big Ten contest of the season.
Beilein is still unsure about the exact nature of Hardaway's injury, and the junior's return to the lineup for the game against the Wildcats is not guaranteed.
"It's tough to tell sometimes, but it's one of those things that needs just enough rest, to be healthy the rest of the year or be lingering," Beilein said.
With Big Ten season finally upon Michigan, Beilein wants to make sure Hardaway is fully recovered before throwing him out on the court. Between Jan. 3 and Jan. 17, the Wolverines play five conference games, including trips to Ohio State and Minnesota, and that kind of gauntlet could inflame the injury, if Hardaway comes back before he is ready.
Redshirt sophomore Jon Horford is also easing back into it. He has been participating in half-court drills this week.
Note: Big Ten season arrives
The players, coaches, media and fans have all hyped this moment since summertime - the conference slate is finally here, and Big Ten teams will get a chance to clash head to head.
"We have come a long way, but now we're 0-0," Beilein said. "We're really looking forward to getting into this type of play. As demanding as it is, this is why these young men came to Michigan. This is why I came to Michigan, and this is why our staff loves coaching at Michigan. The Big Ten has become a giant, and now we're in the middle of it. I like the idea that now, there is no nonconference games. It's just focusing on going after our 14th Big Ten Championship. If you get to that point, where you're in the hunt, you're in a good spot for the NCAA playoffs.
"This is what we all get excited about. Now, all of a sudden, when you're at Northwestern and you have a huge crowd and you have to play against a talented team that is so innovative in what they do, it's not as much fun. But you have to go on the road now, but every high-major team that has been protected by playing mostly home games, now nobody gets that opportunity to just play at home."
A few teams have already kicked off conference play, and Beilein allowed himself a few minutes to watch some of the action, including "bits and pieces" of Minnesota' 76-63 win over Michigan State.
"I saw incredible intensity, speed and athleticism," Beilein said. "It's something I hope we have. Watching the games, the quickness of the teams and the intensity, it is at another level.
"There is so much to be learned about every team, and now in the next month, we'll find out where teams are in their process, their journey. The sample size of how good teams are right now is so minimal, because teams haven't gone on the road and played. High-majors have played one or two road games. They're going to play nine in the next eight weeks. That's where you'll find out who are the best teams in the country."
Note: Northwestern poses a challenge
The Wildcats have struggled to find a footing thus far this season, adapting to life without two of its best players: JerShon Cobb (suspended for the season) and Drew Crawford (injury).
But Northwestern is always a tricky team to play, due to its unique Princeton-style offense. And the young Wolverines - including freshmen Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, etc. - will be seeing it for the first time.
"We have some experienced seniors who are fairly good at replicating it, but not at the speed that Northwestern runs it," Beilein said. "Trey Burke said the other day, 'The speed they run it at is incredible,' talking to the freshmen. You have to be really on it.
"Watching them on tape, I haven't seen a drop off. I think Crawford was playing injured prior to that. Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski are playing well, shooting Nik Stauskas-like numbers from three. Hearn, two years ago, we were playing in a gap that wasn't denying his three-point shot. He has become a great shooter, They have a young team that is very talented. They have been playing at a very high level."