Sunday will be Andrew Dakich’s first and only return to Crisler Center.
You might remember the Ohio State guard from his days with the Michigan men’s basketball team, when he would receive cheers whenever he checked in. You might remember him from the scholarship prank that went viral last year. Perhaps his name rings a bell because of his father, Dan — an ESPN color commentator — who’d demonstrate plays and techniques with his son for the camera during timeouts.
Dakich played sparingly with the Wolverines — just over four minutes per game — and was the definition of a crowd favorite. Yet, he was also an invaluable part of the Michigan program.
That run to the Sweet Sixteen? Derrick Walton’s spectacular emergence? Don’t forget to credit Dakich — the man behind the scenes, pestering and improving his teammates in practice.
“When he’s on the scout team for us, they would beat us traditionally,” Michigan coach John Beilein recalled Friday. “He would go down the lane and he would make great plays.”
Dakich will be on the other side of things Sunday— as the theoretical enemy.
Sunday’s matchup between No. 22 Michigan and No. 8 Ohio State is almost certainly an important game for each team. The Buckeyes will look to unleash frustration from Thursday’s loss at Penn State. Michigan wants revenge after blowing a 20-point lead at Ohio State in December. It figures to be a tough, grueling contest between two of the conference’s best teams.
Yet, for Dakich and those he become closest with during his time in Ann Arbor, it’s that and so much more.
Andrew Dakich’s basketball career could have ended seven months ago.
In May, he committed to play his final year of eligibility at Quinnipiac, a mid-major university in Connecticut. Then he got some unexpected news — a denial letter from the school’s graduate broadcast journalism program.
After months of preparing to potentially start for the first time in his college career — Dakich was suddenly left without a place to play. It was already summer, past the period when most programs had filled their rosters for the upcoming season. Dakich thought he might have to find a job outside of basketball.
Then, perhaps from the most unlikely place of all, someone came calling.
Ohio State had just fired long-time coach Thad Matta. Following a series of departures, the Buckeyes were down to just 10 scholarships players. Incoming coach Chris Holtmann needed help in the backcourt.
“It was the right opportunity,” Dakich told The Michigan Daily in a phone interview Friday. “To play in front of 16,000 to 18,000 person crowd. That’s the stuff you hope for when you start playing college basketball.”
On July 17, the rare crossover between one of college sports’ greatest rivalries became official. But before Dakich’s honeymoon in Columbus, he needed to prove himself to his new teammates.
“Here was this walk-on from Michigan getting scholarship to play at Ohio State,” Dakich said. “I knew I had to gain their trust.”
Some of the returning Buckeyes teased that Dakich was a “spy” for the Wolverines. He’ll even hear that joke still to this day.
Eventually, though, with the same work ethic and vigor he practiced with at Michigan, Dakich became one of Ohio State’s own. He’s playing over 18 minutes per game this season — more than three-fold his highest mark with the Wolverines.
But Dakich doesn’t hold a grudge. He still gets on his former roommate, Duncan Robinson, for things Robinson “can do better.” He still encourages Zavier Simpson from afar. He still congratulates Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman after big games. In fact, when Abdur-Rahkman scored his 1000th point last month, one of the first phone calls he received was from Dakich.
“It may pain some people, but I root for those guys,” Dakich said. “You can’t just put those relationships aside. You built something with those guys, and that’s what it’s all about in college — building those types of relationships.
“I feel like I’m with them at times.”
Just months after being projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, Dakich and Ohio State have enjoyed a dream season. Chris Holtmann has taken “The Butler Way” and applied it to perfection, while Keita Bates-Diop, the conference’s leading scorer, can seldom be stopped.
“I’m very optimistic, and I (thought) we had all the right pieces,” Dakich said. “But to say I thought we’d have a 13-2 record in the Big Ten, no, I’d be lying to you if I said I expected that.”
In the funny way that rivalries sometimes end up working out, neither the Buckeyes nor the Wolverines would be where they are without that first matchup.
It’s no secret that choking away a win in Columbus changed Michigan. When the Wolverines raced to a 12-point halftime lead at Iowa in early January, Duncan Robinson reminded the locker room of Ohio State and the perils of comfortability.
And even as it gets further and further away, the loss is still in the back of the Wolverines’ minds.
“That’s all we talk about all season,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers.
For Ohio State, meanwhile, it was proof of the ability that had been lying underneath the surface to that point. The Buckeyes had just lost to Clemson — a contest Dakich felt his team “gave up” in and had “no life, no joy to play the game.”
Ohio State looked that way for the first 20 minutes against Michigan. Then, the Buckeyes found life — and a 41-19 second half — to start 2-0 in conference play and put the Big Ten on notice.
“I think that showed what we’re made of,” Dakich said. “And to bring those spirits back against Michigan like that, I think it really shows, ‘Hey, maybe we got something here.’
“It could very well be the turning point for us, and it could very well be the turning point for them.”
There will be plenty of memories for Dakich when he steps off the Ohio State team bus and into Crisler Center on Sunday.
He’ll reminisce with the ushers who he got to know by name. He’ll look up in the crowd at familiar faces. He’ll warm up on the court that he practiced and played on for three years. He’ll share the floor with “life-long” friends and Beilein — the coach he still “loves.”
“It’ll be funny to see him and play against him on this floor,” Robinson said. “It’ll be a cool moment.
“He’s one of my closest friends. Obviously, he was here first, and we were roommates and teammates and close friends. It’s a friendship that goes way beyond when we leave school.”
Robinson himself will have plenty of distractions to sift through before the Buckeyes and Wolverines tip-off.
It’s his and Abdur-Rakhman’s final home game at Michigan. Neither expects to cry, but they didn’t deny that it could happen.
They’ll be joined in their fight against their emotions by their former teammate. Dakich knows, though, that there’s still a basketball game and much on the line to be gained. He assures that the competitiveness that made him stand out at Michigan will take over once the ball hits the floor.
“I’m trying to beat them,” Dakich said. “It’s like what we used to do in practice every day. But now it’s in front of people. It’s a huge game. It’s a rivalry game. There’s a lot of emotions, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to know what you’re competing for and what you’re playing for.”