Thirty minutes before the start of any Michigan men’s basketball game, all eyes are on Aubrey Dawkins.
As the Wolverines huddle at center court for a final check-in, the sophomore guard emerges from the pack carrying a basketball and a grin. His task is simple: provide Michigan, and any fans already in their seats, with a healthy dose of pregame energy before the team jogs through Crisler Center’s south tunnel en route to the locker room.
Dawkins gets it done with a dunk.
Some days, it’s a 360-degree spin leading into a two-handed slam. Others, it’s a left-hand finish off an alley-oop Dawkins throws himself off the backboard. Sometimes, a teammate throws him the lob, and occassionally, it’s as simple as a soaring, right-handed spike off a jump Dawkins starts from a distance that seems impossible.
As it happened Wednesday, the soaring right-handed spike did prove impossible during the second half of Michigan’s 68-57 victory over Rutgers. Had Dawkins converted, he would have found himself the star of SportsCenter. Instead, the missed dunk became an emblem for a flat, uninteresting game that saw the Wolverines struggle to put away a team still winless in eight tries against Big Ten opponents.
Dawkins described the attempt as “Blake Griffin-esque” after the game and said he “most definitely” would be admonished down the line by Michigan coach John Beilein.
“He has to understand: You’ve got to be good before you’re great,” Beilein said in his postgame press conference. “You can’t skip steps. I think he understands that. … We had the same thing with Glenn Robinson (III), who had a lot of ‘my bads’ when he tried to dunk it with one hand — and Mitch McGary.”
The comparison to Robinson, who left for the NBA Draft after the 2013-14 season, was more apt than perhaps even Beilein realized. Robinson was Dawkins’ predecessor as the performer of the pregame dunk, but it’s a ritual that, bizarrely, Michigan coaches never witness live.
Beilein, along with assistants Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, haven’t yet emerged from the locker room when dunk time rolls around. Beilein’s third assistant, Jeff Meyer, supervises warmups, but he returns to the locker room before the players and isn’t there to watch the final minutes.
“I’ve never seen it,” Meyer said before Wednesday’s game. “I leave when the clock reads 36 minutes (before tipoff).”
The dunk takes place closer to the 32-minute mark, and it might be better that way. Dawkins, who lost his starting spot early in the season, displays as much raw basketball talent as any of his teammates. At points throughout his two years at Michigan, however, his athleticism has seemed to translate to the type of ostentatiousness on display Wednesday. The lesson, Beilein said, is obvious.
“Go up and dunk it with two (hands),” Beilein said. “It’ll still make the highlight reel. Just go up, but get it with two hands.”
Dawkins, for his part, understands his limitations. The miss Wednesday was more a miscalculation than an attempt at posterization, Dawkins said — he jumped from seven feet away because he expected to draw contact once the Rutgers defender met him in the air.
With no red jerseys nearby, Dawkins instead found himself hurtling through open space, with a desperation attempt at essentially throwing the ball through the rim his only hope of converting on the play.
Dawkins, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, said he doesn’t have a go-to dunk and unknowingly foreshadowed Wednesday’s miss.
“There’s only so many dunks you can really do,” he said. “Especially ones you can make consistently.”
Modest as he is, Dawkins’ arsenal is hardly limited. Given his athleticism and the dunking ability he possessed as a true freshman, there was never much doubt as to who might replace Robinson.
“Usually the most athletic guy does it,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. on Tuesday. “It was kind of obvious that once that time of warmups comes, everybody would pretty much back up and let (Dawkins) do what he does.”
Junior forward Zak Irvin said Tuesday that Dawkins is the Wolverines’ best jumper, echoing Walton’s recollection that Dawkins became the natural choice to succeed Robinson as soon as he arrived on campus.
The vast majority of the time, the abilities Dawkins displays in warm-ups and in practice translate seamlessly to his in-game performance. The mentality, of course, is different. Dawkins gets a second chance if he misses his pregame dunk. He was afforded no such second chance Wednesday. Then again, there was no need for second chances against Rutgers.