For three months, Michigan played as well as any team in the country. In racing out to an 18-1 record, the Wolverines distanced themselves from a talented and deep Big Ten and played their way into the conversation of being a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. With the season hitting the home stretch, the future seemed bright.
Over the last three games, however, Michigan has looked like anything but one of the best teams in the country. After beginning the season winning 18 of 19, the Wolverines finished the season by losing two of three, highlighted - or lowlighted if you prefer - by an uninspiring, season-ending loss to Michigan State. Michigan wasn’t just losing, it was looking bad doing so. And at the wrong time of the year.
Michigan’s postseason starts today. So, with a week to regroup, what can be expected of the Wolverines? Or more to the point, after struggling down the stretch, can the Wolverines find their groove again?
Michigan’s players have been candid about their end-of-season difficulties. During a midweek session with the media, Sophomore Franz Wagner said Michigan has been, “Getting back to our habits and the way we want to play.” When asked how Michigan can avoid another Michigan State-like letdown, Wagner said that the one-and-done nature of the postseason will certainly help, but it’s also about style of play and getting back to playing aggressively. “It’s really on the starting five,” Wagner said, “to make sure to establish a tone and establish the tempo that we want to play at.”
Freshman Hunter Dickinson agreed that it begins with the starters, but shouldered additional responsibility for Michigan’s fade. Dickinson told reporters that Michigan’s late season troubles were, “Probably my fault.” “I haven’t been as efficient down low,” Dickinson said, “I need to get back to what I was doing before.” While it’s not fair (or accurate) to blame all of the Wolverines’ woes on Dickinson, its also no secret that his play is critical to Michigan’s fortunes.
I wrote earlier this season that when you play Michigan, you have to pick your poison. Do you play Dickinson straight up? It’s a risky proposition, as Dickinson led the Wolverines in scoring while shooting 60% from the floor. Or do you double-team Dickinson? Do that, and Dickinson has shown the ability at find open looks for teammates. Through 19 games, it seemed there was no right answer for opposing defenses.
Over the last three games, however, Dickinson hasn’t looked comfortable. His shots haven’t looked as natural or as clean. They also haven’t found the bottom of the net with much regularity. Not coincidentally, Michigan struggled. Dickinson said he’s been spending time working on his post-up game, aware of its importance to his team’s success. Patience is key, Dickinson said. “I think I was just rushing a little too much. That’s something that I’ve really focused on lately, the last couple of days, just taking my time.” Dickinson said he’s also worked on adjusting his post-up game, adding wrinkles in response to defenses that have adjusted to him over the course of the season.
Michigan captured its first regular season conference championship in nearly a decade this season. Can the Wolverines shake off a couple of bad performances and follow up their regular season success with a deep tournament run (or two)? Dickinson, for one, is confident. “You’ll see a new and motivated Michigan team (in Indianapolis),” the big freshman vowed. With a rematch against Maryland tipping off later today, we’re about to find out if that’s the case.