On Monday morning, Hunter Dickinson took to Instagram to shed some light on life in the Indianapolis bubble — where virtually the entire NCAA Tournament is to be played over the next three weeks.
The freshman center captioned a picture of a measly pile of scrambled eggs, three slices of bacon and a seemingly lukewarm batch of breakfast potatoes, “An impeccable breakfast from the NCAA.” Despite just appearing on his Instagram story, the photo made the rounds on Twitter and the internet and was met with mixed reaction — some siding with Dickinson’s satirical analysis, others sanctimoniously reprimanding him for “complaining” about a free meal.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday though, Dickinson amended his stance to a degree.
“The NCAA has tried their best, I guess, to kind of do the best they can under these circumstances,” Dickinson said on Wednesday. “(Michigan coach Juwan Howard) talked to us last night and told us we need to really just buy in and ‘Embrace the suck,’ as he calls it. No matter what kind of conditions they give us, we have to do our best to overcome. That starts with the food. From now on, you won’t hear me complaining about the food or nothing like that. I’m embracing the suck.”
For Dickinson and Michigan, that task might be more difficult than it is for most programs around the country. With the Big Ten Tournament occurring in Indianapolis last week, the nine Big Ten teams participating in the NCAA Tournament stayed put instead of returning to their respective campuses. While the circumstances have given the Wolverines more time to adjust to the environment prior to their first-round game on Saturday, it’s also led to a lot more down time and isolation.
“Coach Howard is big on academics and so we have to attend all of our classes,” Dickinson said. “… You’re never lacking with time to spend on academics in the bubble.
“I haven’t been outside since Sunday and so I don’t know what the air feels like outside anymore. … I think we’re gonna go practice at Purdue today, so we’ll be able to get a little bit of the outside when we go to the busses and stuff like that.”
In accordance with the NCAA’s guidelines regarding contract tracing, each player is given his own hotel room. While Dickinson admits that having a little privacy is a breath of fresh air, it’s offset by the boredom of being alone. His cure — force the issue.
“Sometimes I’ll just find myself walking into my teammates’ room not even having anything to say, just having some company,” Dickinson said with a grin.
His longtime friend, freshman forward Terrance Williams, occupies the room across the hall and is the recipient of a lot of Dickinson’s impromptu visits.
Still, despite the adverse and unconventional conditions inside the bubble, Dickinson and the Wolverines are trying to look at the positives — a mentality that starts at the top with Howard.
“We’ve had an experience somewhat similar throughout the season during the pandemic,” Howard said. “There were times where it was just us, no fans allowed to our games, no family members allowed to our games, so it was about embracing the competition, pulling together, staying connected as a group. That’s how we’ve dealt with it, so now as time has progressed, we’re getting better and better.”
Fortunately, Michigan has been able to practice as well. Courts have been set up in different rooms of the Indianapolis Convention Center, allowing the Wolverines to “get out on the hardwood with two baskets and see the ball go through the net,” as Howard put it.
For Michigan’s four freshmen, sophomore wing Franz Wagner and transfers like graduate guard Mike Smith and senior forward Chaundee Brown, getting their first taste of the NCAA Tournament is a dream come true. Having watched Cinderellas like Florida Gulf Coast or Loyola Chicago make deep runs in recent years — or for Wagner specifically, seeing his brother reach the 2018 National Championship game with Michigan — they’re excited to play on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
“If you’re a basketball fan, there’s really nothing better than the NCAA tournament every year,” Dickinson said. “It’s something every basketball fan looks forward to just because the emotions out there are so genuine. It’s college players and it’s gonna be like the best thing that’s ever happened to a lot of them. It might be the last games some college players ever play for the seniors and stuff like that. It’s just so many emotions that it could be ‘your last game’ kinda mentality, (which) really shows on the court.”
In just his first season in Ann Arbor, Dickinson, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a AP Second-Team All American, has experienced all the personal success he could’ve hoped for just nine months ago. But, in the do-or-die scenario that is the NCAA Tournament, he’s more focused on keeping this Wolverines’ team together as long as possible.
“The next time we lose will be our last game of the season,” Dickinson said. “For a player like me, I think it’s an understatement to say I’ve enjoyed this season. I really think this season has been special for me because I’ve met my teammates and I love hanging out with them. I really just love playing with them and for them. … I wanna do my part and help them win as much as I want to win. I don’t wanna stop playing with these guys.”
If that means enduring subpar packaged breakfasts until April 5, then so be it.
“Last year, the team wasn’t able to play and (coach Howard) talked about how that was difficult for the entire team,” Dickinson said. “So, we’re just fortunate to be out here and playing and hopefully win a national championship.”
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