All teams face a certain degree of uncertainty heading into a new season. It’s the nature of college basketball, particularly with the high degree of roster turnover in today’s game. At Michigan, that uncertainty was a little more heightened this offseason. Departing seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske were such a large part of Michigan’s success over the past few years, how would the Wolverines replace the duo? Particularly with David DeJulius and Colin Castleton, two players expected to take on expanded roles this season, transferring out of the program. Michigan welcomed a pair of its own transfers in Mike Smith (Columbia) and Chaundee Brown (Wake Forest), but what would Smith and Brown bring? And how would they fit in?
Michigan had a solid freshman class coming in, but the player thought to be the jewel of that class, the player thought to be most ready to contribute as a freshman, left the Wolverines at the alter and signed with the NBA’s G League. Would anyone else be able to contribute early? With so many questions and so few answers, it was a restless summer in Ann Arbor.
Once the season started, however, it didn’t take long to see how the pieces fit together. Yes, there were growing pains, but the early results have been promising - particularly the impact of the newcomers Smith, Brown and freshman Hunter Dickinson.
Smith’s play at point guard has been critical given Simpson’s importance to the team. A high-usage scorer at Columbia, Smith has proven more than capable of running Michigan’s offense. Smith plays similar to Simpson in that he’s constantly looking to find scoring opportunities for his teammates, but that’s where the similarities end. Smith adds a scoring punch that Simpson lacked, but more than that, Smith is not as ball dominant as was Simpson. The result is an offense in which the ball moves more freely than any Michigan offense in recent memory. And the results have been tangible. With its free-flowing offense, Michigan has increased its scoring (up 7.0 points per game) and field goal percentage (from 46.2% to 52.4%) from last year.
But if the offense is run by Smith, it’s run through Dickinson. The book on freshman big men is that few are able to contribute at a high level right out of the chute. Dickinson has changed that narrative. And it’s not that Dickinson is leading Michigan in scoring (at 17.5 points a game) as much as it is how polished the precocious freshman is. Dickinson gives Michigan something it hasn’t had in I don’t know how long - a legitimate post presence. Dickinson is so well-schooled, his post moves so precise, that he draws comparisons to his coach in his playing days.
But it’s more than Dickinson’s scoring that propels the Wolverines. Dickinson is also an adept passer. Opposing coaches are finding that if they send double-teams at the freshman, he usually finds the open man. The result of which is an offense that’s proving difficult to stop.
A third newcomer is also playing a pivotal role for the Wolverines. Primarily a starter at Wake Forest, Brown has thrived in his role coming off the bench at Michigan, where he gives the Wolverines a little bit of everything. Brown provides scoring (9.0 points a game), a three-point threat (shooting 39% from behind the arc) and a strong defensive presence. But more than anything, Brown brings energy. In less than half a season, Brown has already become a fan favorite in Ann Arbor.
With its blend of newcomers and returning starters Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner, the undefeated Wolverines are playing as well as anyone in the conference, if not the country. But it’s more than Michigan’s free-flowing offense that has the Wolverines playing so well. Michigan is also playing inspired defense. To watch Michigan play, it’s evident that Michigan has not only bought in on the defensive end, but seems to revel in playing defense. And much of that can be credited to the Wolverines’ second year head coach.
When Juwan Howard was hired, there were those that labelled Howard as just another ex-player returning to lead his alma mater - his qualifications limited to having once played in the arena in which he’s now coaching. Howard’s situation was different, however. He had the coaching chops that most of those he’s compared to lacked. In addition to a 19-year NBA playing career, Howard spent six years as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat. Howard was not only one of the most respected assistants in the league, but he was starting to get consideration for NBA head coaching positions when his alma mater called. All coaching hires are a gamble to a certain extent, but Michigan’s gamble on Howard appears to be paying off.
But as well as Michigan has been playing, the Wolverines hadn’t played the strongest of early schedules. Michigan ran out to an 8-0 record, but did so without playing a ranked team. So how good were the Wolverines?
Michigan has started answering that question - and answering it emphatically. Over the past four games, Michigan played three ranked teams and has yet to be truly challenged. The Wolverines beat Northwestern by 19 points, Minnesota by 25 points and Tuesday night beat the best team they’ve played this year, a top-ten Wisconsin team, by 23 points (games in which they enjoyed leads of 29, 37 and 40 points, respectively). In doing so, Michigan held onto its position atop the Big Ten while becoming the first team in NCAA history to consecutively beat three ranked teams by at least 19 points.
It’s still early, and in case you haven’t heard, the Big Ten is loaded. Michigan’s backloaded schedule will surely challenge the Wolverines as the season progresses. In such a talent-laden and deep league, it’s hard to imagine any team escaping with fewer than four conference losses. But at 11-0, Howard’s Wolverines have not just played their way into the top tier of conference teams, they look like a good bet to stay there.