Dickinson shows veteran poise in biggest game of career

Monday, February 22, 2021 - 8:52pm

Freshman Hunter Dickinson has been a reliable center in crucial moments this season.

Freshman Hunter Dickinson has been a reliable center in crucial moments this season. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

In the halftime locker room during the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Ohio State, senior wing Chaundee Brown had one message for Michigan coach Juwan Howard: 

“Go to Hunter.”

In their biggest game of the year, the Wolverines shouldered their offensive load onto freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Putting that kind of pressure on any freshman will undoubtedly lead to a few butterflies. At this point in his young career, though, Dickinson has grown accustomed to it. 

The night before the game, Dickinson met with Howard to go over film. The pair broke down Dickinson’s game, zeroing in on areas that could still be polished.

“Those one-on-one film sessions, those workouts that we have, the team workouts, the big man workouts, he’s growing before our eyes,” Howard said. “It takes freshmen a little longer to figure it out, but Hunter has this high basketball IQ because of his passion for the game and the way how he’s accepted learning. A lot of guys don’t want to be coached. Hunter wants to be coached.”

Dickinson was held relatively in check in the first half. He was routinely swarmed by double teams and struggled to find looks inside, forcing the Wolverines to concentrate their offensive attack on the perimeter. The strategy paid off, and a 10-for-13 3-point shooting display in the first half forced the Buckeyes to take their attention away from the paint.

“They had a 6-7 guy guarding a 7-2 guy,” Brown said. “So I’m like, if they double, we have myself, Isaiah (Livers), Mike (Smith), Eli (Brooks) (as) shooters around the perimeter. So they gotta give one. They’re not gonna double him or if they do we gotta shoot it. It was just common sense.”

Once the Buckeyes keyed in on stopping the Wolverines’ 3-point attack, Dickinson had an opportunity to take over. He notched 16 points in the last 20 minutes alone, whether it was at the free throw line, shimmies in the post or a thunderous jam over two Buckeyes that put Michigan up, 75-72, with 4:19 minutes left. 

The Buckeyes’ E.J. Liddell, who stands at 6-foot-7, drew the assignment of Dickinson. With Dickinson standing at 7-foot-2, the Wolverines continued to feed him nearly every trip down. 

For Dickinson, his second half masterclass isn’t anything new. He’s proven that he’s more than willing to shoulder the scoring load in the second half, whether it be willing Michigan’s offense to a two-point win over Penn State in its Big Ten opener or scoring 13 second half points to help defeat Maryland on the road. While most freshmen may shy away from the big moments, Dickinson lives for them.

“Hunter’s performance shows to me exactly what I knew from the beginning and why I recruited him,” Howard said. “He’s a competitor. He’s not gonna beg or shy away from competition.”

As much as Howard praises Dickinson, the young center speaks just as, if not more, glowingly of his coach. Following a 10-point outing against Rutgers that saw him shoot just 4-of-10, Dickinson was unhappy with his performance. He turned to Howard for guidance on how to bounce back.

“Whenever I’m down on myself from a previous game … I always come to him and ask (Howard) to go over the previous game with me,” Dickinson said. “He’s really a player-friendly coach, so whenever I come to him for help, he’s always there 110% with me.”

One key aspect of Dickinson’s game that he has expressed desire to work on is working out of double teams. On Sunday, he looked far more comfortable working out of them, consistently firing cross-court passes to open shooters.

“Today, I think they came with different looks at me,” Dickinson said. “I think the experience from playing teams who have doubled me, teams who haven’t and then teams who mix it up has really helped me grow in that aspect. (I’m) just really reading the floor a lot better.”

More and more, Howard can see a little bit of himself in Dickinson, whether it be his drive to work on his game, his work in the post or his willingness to get better. He even thinks one day Dickinson could be a coach if he chooses to once he retires.

Howard knows that can wait though. In the short term, Dickinson and the dominant Wolverines have other goals on their mind.