Michigan basketball: Hunter Dickinson is biggest key to Final Four run -- and future of Wolverines
He was the Big Ten’s Newcomer of the Year, earning Freshman of the Week honors umpteen times during the 2020-21 season — yes, Hunter Dickinson is much more than just some first-year, flash-in-the-pan for the Michigan Wolverines, who are on the brink of their first Final Four under second-year coach Juwan Howard.
The No. 1-seeded team in the East Region will find out its fate when facing No. 11 UCLA — which was a First Four-winner over Michigan State — on Tuesday night in Indianapolis.
Win or lose, one thing is certain: Michigan wouldn’t be in this position without Dickinson, the 7-1, 255-pound centerpiece of Howard’s program.
Sure, others deserve credit, such as Isaiah Livers (out for rest of year with stress fracture in right foot), Mike Smith, Chaundee Brown and Franz Wagner, but the Wolverines have leaned on their big man throughout the regular season — and they’ve really come to rely upon his wide shoulders during the postseason conference and national tournaments.
He’s rough and tough, rugged and edgy — he’s everything a team would want in a true 5. He’s one of the most dominant bigs in Ann Arbor since the days of the Fab 5, when Howard and Chris Webber anchored the middle and took the Wolverines to back-to-back national championship games in 1992 and 1993.
Like a handful of his teammates, Dickinson had never played in an NCAA Tournament — of course he hadn’t, he’s only a true freshman. But Dickinson’s demeanor, body language and overall tone says it all: He’s comfortable embracing the role of cornerstone and he’s equally comfortable learning the ropes with his teammates.
This year’s tournament likely won’t be his last with Michigan. He’s poised and collected, and he appears to be primed for more. The first taste will make him want to make a return.
That’s a guarantee.
“I think we’ve all played in big games throughout our lives,” Dickinson said, referencing fellow tourney-newbies, during an Elite Eight video press conference. “So you know, obviously, the NCAA Tournament is an entirely different beast in itself. You know, it’s crazy how important this tournament is — it’s really ‘win or go home,’ and there’s only one winner at the end of this stuff. So, for us, you know, it’s been a great experience…”
His hunger was evident during the Elite Eight presser. Prior to the tournament, a lot of “upset” talk surrounded the Wolverines — as in, they were going to get knocked off within the first couple of games by Florida State — which Michigan manhandled — or LSU — which was supposed to be too fast for the Wolverines.
“That is funny, how you know…” Dickinson said. “Once the tournament was set, all I saw on social media was how ‘Michigan was going to get upset (by the winner of ) in the 8 vs. 9 game,’ or ‘They’re the No. 1 seed who’s most likely to get upset’ — and now that we’ve won a couple of games, everybody’s trying to jump on our bandwagon.”
He shrugged his shoulders back, as if he were saying “what’s up, now?” after delivering the “now that we’ve won a couple of games, everybody’s trying to jump on our bandwagon” line.
Oh, and appeared to have yawned a little, as if to laugh off the naysayers.
“I mean, for us, especially me, I feel like we’ve been doubted the entire season,” he continued. “Coming into the season, we were picked probably to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. You know, we were barely ranked in the Top 25 and now we’re a No. 1 seed and in the Elite Eight, hoping to get to the Final Four. …”
Dickinson’s raw power and agility have made him a walking double-double — or at least close. He’s steadily averaged roughly 14 points and 8 rebounds throughout the year, most recently turning in 14 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks during the Wolverines’ 76-58 housing of No. 4 Florida State on Sunday.
Dickinson has the attitude for the job. He’s not flashy like his long-ago Fab Five predecessors. But he let’s his game do the talking. The 7-1 superstar-in-the-making was arguably the best big man in the Big Ten this past season. Yeah, yeah… Iowa’s Luka Garza received a ton of well-deserved attention but he cracked under pressure during games.
Dickinson, on the other hand, did the cracking — breaking down opponents with no regard for their personal safety.
Guards helped the Wolverines flourish under former coach John Beilein. Nik Stauskas, Derrick Walton, Trey Burke — those guys were superstars who led Michigan to a pair of Final Fours and a pair of national championship bouts. But the new Michigan, under Howard, will rely on players such as Dickinson, who can help take the Wolverines to a Final Four — or better — this season and ultimately cut down the nets in early April 2022.