Last week, the Michigan men’s basketball team seemed nothing but a shadow of its usual self.
On Tuesday, No. 4 Illinois stormed into Ann Arbor and drubbed the Wolverines; then, on Sunday, Michigan slept walked through a six point loss to unranked Michigan State, a game less-competitive than the scoreboard indicates.
With the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament imminent, the Wolverines hardly want to relive either of those outcomes any time soon.
“We’re tired of losing, I would say,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson told reporters on Wednesday. “Losing is never fun. … I think it kinda lights a fire under you. It definitely has for me.”
From here on, Michigan knows nothing is guaranteed. Few teams survive the chaos of March. The season, while wildly successful to this point, can tailspin if certain struggles persist.
To right the ship, Michigan will have to rediscover its mojo. This week in practice, the Wolverines made a concerted effort to do so.
“Last practice, just reinforcing our habits, that’s something that (Michigan coach Juwan Howard) kept going back to, and that’s something we’ve been missing,” Dickinson said. “Just getting away from our habits, habits that we’ve been working on since June. I think these are gonna be the most beneficial practices that we’ve had all season.”
Added sophomore wing Franz Wagner: “This is a really good league, you gotta come prepared to play every single night no matter who you’re facing. That’s what we’ve done up until this last week when we had this slippage. But I think not expecting just to win by showing up is part of that.”
Dickinson and Wagner are each central to such an effort. Against Illinois, the pair combined to shoot 2-of-17 for a meager eight points. Facing Michigan State, they fared marginally better, registering 22 points on a spotty 8-of-22 from the field.
The performances are a far cry from their usual dominance. And without Dickinson and Wagner leading the way, Michigan’s offense cratered.
“I would say it’s probably my fault, I’ll take the blame,” Dickinson said. “I haven’t been as efficient down low, and that always makes it harder for the rest of the players. … As long as I hold up my part, I think that will help the entire offense, because it’ll force teams to help out more on (defense), and it’ll open up the game for my teammates, make everything easier for them.”
In turn, Dickinson, a southpaw, has emphasized using his right hand around the basket. Recently, teams have neutralized him by leaning hard against his left, forcing him to go right. It’s a simple fix that he hopes will reassert early-season dominance.
For Wagner, the solution is finding a perfect balance between aggression and complacency, a predicament he’s been grappling with throughout the season. Wagner is at his best when attacking downhill within the flow of the game, emphasizing fluidity rather than forced actions.
“Not predetermining what I want to do out there,” Wagner said. “I can do a lot of things out there, but sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in one thing and do that over and over again. … And not waiting for something to happen, sometimes you gotta set the tone in the game. If you want to be a good player like I want to be, you gotta do that sometimes.”
Wagner and Dickinson may very well determine whether Michigan lives up to its lofty ceiling this March. As the status of senior guard Eli Brooks — who suffered an ankle injury on Sunday — remains in question, the duo only assume more responsibility.
There’s an inherent risk to relying on a pair of underclassmen in March. Neither Wagner nor Dickinson have experience in a postseason setting, Dickinson a freshman and Wagner a victim of the truncated 2019-20 season. Michigan may very well live or die by Wagner and Dickinson’s success.
Neither player, though, is fazed by the challenges that await them.
“Coach Howard is great at making sure everybody’s ready to go, and if you’re not ready to go, it’s really on you,” Wagner said. “I think he knows how to get the most out of people, and I think that translates to any type of environment in basketball, really, and it’s definitely gonna help us over the weekend as well.”
Whether that holds true remains to be seen. Dickinson, though, is confident that the recent spell is firmly in the rearview mirror.
“We’re not really allowed to lose another game or we’re going home,” Dickinson said. “I think the team has really embraced that, and you can see that in practice yesterday. Everybody was treating it like it’s do or die right now.
“I think you’re gonna see a new and motivated Michigan team that hopefully can go 9-0 in these games and raise two more banners.”