Coming off of an Elite Eight tournament exit and a Big Ten regular season championship, the Michigan men’s basketball team enters its 2021-22 season with expectations as high as they can be set:
“The goal is always to win Big Ten conference play, to win the Big Ten conference (tournament), and also to win the NCAA Championship,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said at Big Ten Media Day on Oct. 7.
The Wolverines aim to tackle these ambitions despite massive turnover from last year’s squad. Notable departures include Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown — four of their top six scorers — as well as a capable depth piece in Austin Davis.
Now flanked with newcomers, Michigan will take the floor Wednesday in its season-opener against Buffalo. Before the game, The Daily breaks down how the Wolverines’ new roster is shaping up.
Standing at the helm for Michigan’s guards — and the entire team for that matter — is fifth-year senior Eli Brooks. Brooks has been a long-standing piece for the Wolverines, dating back to when John Beilein was still in charge. His presence in the locker room has only grown, getting the nod from sophomore center Hunter Dickinson as the team’s leader and role model.
Statistically, Brooks finished in the top four on the team in points per game and assists with 9.5 and eight, respectively. His presence at the ‘2’ was paramount to the Wolverines performance as someone that could be a threat on offense with the ball in his hands, off the ball as a shooter and and on defense as a lockdown defender.
For the second straight season, a graduate transfer guard will be Brooks’s partner in the backcourt. Last year, it was Mike Smith, whom Brooks developed a strong connection with on the court. This time, it’s DeVante’ Jones, a determined point guard from Coastal Carolina that landed third in the nation in steals last year.
Jones will serve as the primary ball-handler in Howard’s offense, slipping into a similar role that Smith filled last year. Jones comes in as a far better defender than Smith, but his ceiling will be determined by his ability as a scoring threat. Being a true threat from the perimeter will free up space for the rest of the offense, including Brooks, and could act as a key to unlocking Michigan’s potential.
Behind the two fifth-years is a slew of young players. Freshman Kobe Bufkin, a four-star recruit, appears to be an early option off the bench for the Wolverines, coming in as a scoring threat that fits in best as a shooting guard. The McDonald’s All-American averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his senior year at Grand Rapids Christian and appears to be the most college-ready of the freshmen guards.
Other options include sophomore Zeb Jackson, who struggled last year, shooting a lowly 19% from the field, which he paired with lackluster play in other facets of his game. Jackson, though, could find himself some minutes as an improved player in his second year. Freshmen Frankie Collins and Isaiah Barnes currently slot in as rotational guys, but as the season progresses the two could find themselves on the floor more often, contingent on their development.
Always somewhat of a wallflower in the backcourt is senior Adrien Nunez. Nunez, touted as a shooter, only played 34 minutes in total last season, racking up six points on three-for-nine shooting and going zero-for-two from beyond the arc. For Nunez to find any significant time on the court this year, he’ll have to shoot like the program envisioned him doing when he first arrived.
With the departure of Wagner and Livers, there’s a crater left in Michigan’s frontcourt. The Wolverines are looking to opposite ends of the experience spectrum to fill that gap.
The veteran option is senior Brandon Johns Jr., who has played more of a support role in his previous years as a Wolverine. At the end of last season, however, following Livers’s injury, Johns found himself in the starting lineup. And Johns did not disappoint — averaging 9.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game across his last five games, four of which came in the NCAA Tournament. Johns is currently slotted in at the ‘4’ in Michigan’s first-team lineup and is expected to start at least for the first chunk of the season.
The youthful option — and starting at small forward — is five-star freshman Caleb Houstan. Houstan is the whole package: a dynamic shooter, skillful ball-handler and strong defender. It’s why he’s slotted as the sixth overall Rivals recruit and seventh overall 247 sports recruit in his class. The 6-foot-8 Canadian is about as NBA-ready as they come and will be able to contribute starting in the first minute of Michigan’s season.
Coming in at that small forward position off the bench will be sophomore Terrance Williams II. Williams II has slimmed down, dropping ten pounds in the offseason, making his 6-foot-7 frame more suitable for the ‘3.’ Self-described as a “junkyard dog,” Williams II will come out as a scrappy, hard-working player that has the potential to create plays for the Wolverines. Behind Williams II will be freshman Will Tschetter, who will likely see most of his minutes in less-crucial game situations.
The Wolverines return their sophomore, 7-foot-1 pure center Hunter Dickinson. There’s a strong argument that Dickinson was the team’s most valuable player last year, leading the team in scoring and rebounding with 14.1 and 7.4 per game, respectively. And Dickinson brings a presence in the paint that not many other college teams can match up against, demanding a high amount of attention and double teams that open up the court for other Michigan players.
Dickinson made the choice to return to school after exploring the NBA draft. Scouts told him he needed to work more on his shooting ability and ability to score over his left shoulder with his right hand, as a natural lefty. Expect Dickinson to showcase any improvements he’s made in those areas while continuing to do what he excelled at last year that led him to a Big Ten All-First Team selection.
Technically, freshman Moussa Diabate is listed on the roster as a forward. And although he will enter the game in the power forward position, Diabate — standing at 6-foot-11 — is the definition of a big man. His length gives him the ability to rotate in at center, and his scoring ability allows him to stretch the floor. The French native spent his high school career in Florida, where he notched 14.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and shot 64% from the field at IMG Academy, earning McDonald’s All American honors.
Diabate comes in as an incredible athlete who can truly guard any position, making for a nearly limitless defensive ceiling. Diabate might end up being Michigan’s X-factor when he checks in to the game, especially if he finds himself in matchups against the opponent’s substitutions.
Filling the holes left behind by its departed players will be a daunting task for Michigan. The Wolverines look to do so through returning stalwarts such as Brooks and Dickinson as well as a platoon of newcomers, including Jones, Houston and Diabate. But this team has the requisite talent to go further than last season’s group, which reached the Elite Eight. The ability for new and old to mesh together will be the determining factor in whether the Wolverines are competing for a Big Ten and National Championship at the end of the season, or if they fall short of their lofty goals.