Saturday afternoon, while Michigan closed out a victory over 16-seeded Texas Southern, Will Wade caught his first glimpse of the challenge that awaits his Louisiana State squad Monday night.
As the Tigers’ coach poured through reams of film, freshman center Hunter Dickinson quickly grabbed his attention.
“He’s massive,” Wade said on Sunday, offering a shoulder-shrug in the process. “There’s just not players like him in the SEC. … He’s a load. We haven’t played a post player like him all season long.”
Dickinson, 7-foot-1 and 255 pounds, poses a hefty mismatch for an undersized LSU frontcourt. None of the Tigers’ primary rotation players stand taller than 6-foot-9. At 6-foot-11 and 255 pounds, freshman Josh Gray best matches Dickinson’s physical measurements, but Gray has played just 33 minutes the entire season.
6-foot-7 forward Darius Days, then, figures to draw a lion’s share of the match-up.
“I’m gonna have to work extra hard, gotta get into his legs more since he’s taller than me,” Days said. “Gotta box him out a little bit more than I’d box out other guys. And try to get better positioning, get the ball before he does.”
Days has yet to battle a player comparable to Dickinson this season, both in play style and physique. The SEC hardly plays through its centers, whereas the Big Ten is known for its behemoths like Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn and Iowa’s Luka Garza. Prodded to compare Dickinson to a player the Tigers have faced, Wade struggled, finally settling on Missouri’s Jeremiah Tilmon. Yet Tilmon, 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, is still a forward.
“Nobody with (Michigan’s) size, physicality, their scheme,” Wade said. “Like I said, their backup, (redshirt senior center Austin Davis), would be, he’d be one of the better low post — you know this, SEC’s just different. Everybody’s got spaced out bigs and long athletic guys. Teams don’t have these big guys like (Dickinson).”
In its preparation, LSU has placed a concerted effort on devising a plan to neutralize Dickinson. Personnel-wise, the Tigers lack a player who can hold his own in a 1-on-1 fashion. Collectively, too, they struggle in the interior. On the season, the Tigers rank 320th in the nation in offensive rebounds allowed. Michigan, meanwhile, finished atop the Big Ten in two-point field goal percentage, proving its aptitude down low.
LSU’s weakness seems to play right into the Wolverines’ strength. To mitigate the damage, the Tigers will turn to a schematic effort.
“If we give them their first shot around that restricted arc, we’re gonna have an unbelievably difficult time rebounding,” Wade said. “We’ve gotta keep that ball out of the restricted area, gotta keep that ball out of what we call the post box, the box we tape on our floor.
“We’ve gotta somehow keep the ball out of the post. Because when they get it in the post, not only do they have high quality scoring opportunities, they’re gonna get the offensive rebounds. And then it’s just a matter of whether they make it or we foul them.”
Regardless of the tactics LSU deploys, Michigan certainly possesses the upper hand. The challenge the Wolverines face is capitalizing on such an advantage.
Against Texas Southern, Michigan proved unable to do so on a consistent basis. Undersized in the same manner as LSU, Texas Southern flummoxed Dickinson with a series of double-teams, reconjuring early season habits of rushed footwork and errant passes. Though Dickinson notched 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, he turned the ball over six times and fouled out.
“The key today is just being ready to understand that there are going to be times when teams double, making the right decision with the basketball, with the high IQ that he has,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after Friday’s win. “At times he wants to make the exciting play, but he knows that at times you have to keep it simple. That’s our motto. Let’s hunt for singles.”
Tomorrow, Michigan can ill-afford a continuation of those woes, especially in the prolonged absence of senior forward Isaiah Livers. Dickinson, successful or not, remains the offensive focal point. Now, with a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, the Wolverines’ season rests on his ability to dominate.
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