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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The Michigan men’s basketball team will have a new identity.

Five crucial players from last year’s roster have departed, including four of the Wolverines’ top six scorers — Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown — as well as their second option at center and veteran leader, Austin Davis. 

The two pillars left standing are center Hunter Dickinson, who returns after a freshman campaign where he averaged 14.1 points per game as Michigan’s clear number one option down low, and fifth year senior guard Eli Brooks, who was a defensive stalwart for the team.

“I was happy when Eli (Brooks) came back,” Dickinson said at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday. “ … Of course I love playing with him, so I was really excited because I know he’s going to be a big part of our team this year, for sure.”

It’s obvious to anyone that Brooks will be crucial to this lineup. Last year, he landed in the top-four on the team for minutes, points, points per game and assists. Now, as a fifth-year senior, Brooks will bring experience and leadership to the locker room.

But entering this season, it becomes even more apparent that Brooks and Dickinson can’t be the only ones the Wolverines rely on. As far as rosters go, Michigan’s is gutted. Returning players only accounted for 40.4% of total minutes played in the 2020-21 season, and the proportion of total points they contributed lands just barely higher at 40.8%. Take out Dickinson and Brooks and those numbers both fall below 12.5%.

Despite that, expectations for the team haven’t changed.

“The goal is always to be one of the most competitive teams in college basketball,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said at Big Ten Media Day. “The goal is always to win Big Ten conference play, to win the Big Ten conference (tournament), and also to win the NCAA Championship.

“That goal will never ever stop here as long as I’m the coach of the University of Michigan.”

Pundits also remain high on the Wolverines. CBS Sports slots them in at No. 6 in their preseason rankings, which — if the team opened at that number — would be the highest AP Poll preseason ranking since the 2012-13 season when they opened at No. 5. The Athletic rankings slot Michigan atop of the Big Ten, edging out Purdue by one vote.

With such a different team, where is all the optimism coming from? To start, the Wolverines have the 247 Sports No. 2 overall recruiting class coming in. Five-star wing Caleb Houstan, four-star forward Moussa Diabate and four-star guard Kobe Bufkin among others will start making their mark on Michigan’s roster from the first game of the season.

“(The freshman) are in there every single day, 70 hours they’re in there,” Brooks said. “So I think that’s just something you can appreciate. Their work ethic and their willingness to learn. A lot of people that come in as freshmen, if they mess up, they put their heads down right away. But they’re willing to learn, they’re positive, and they take that advice.”

When asked about Diabate, Dickinson chimed in:

“He’s a freak of nature. He’s six-eleven and has long arms. Super athletic. … He’s going to be really good. I think he’s got so much potential. I think he can be a really big piece for this team.”

Beyond the freshman, the point guard position looks to be keyed by another transfer, with Coastal Carolina transfer Devante’ Jones replacing Mike Smith. Sophomores that showed potential last year, including forward Terrance Williams II and guard Zeb Jackson, could find themselves with more minutes and a chance to break out. Rounding out the identity makeover is senior forward Brandon Johns, who at the end of the season averaged 26.4 minutes and 9.4 points in his last five games, and could become a reliable option coming off the bench for the Wolverines.

When it all comes together, both Howard and the players have faith in this year’s team entering the season. What will the result be? According to Dickinson:

“Undefeated season.”