SportsMonday Column: Michigan proves it's ready for March — and maybe April
COLUMBUS — Hunter Dickinson fired off a tweet and stepped up to the Zoom camera.
“First of all, did you literally just tweet that clap back at Doug Gottlieb before coming on this Zoom call?” a reporter asked.
Around when the Michigan men’s basketball team was tipping off in Columbus, Gottlieb, a sports radio host, had tweeted: “Michigan hasn’t played the better Big 10 teams, got smoked by Minnesota on the road… Hard to guess how they play today- smart money is on Ohio State.”
It’s the kind of sentiment the Wolverines have heard for much of the season. They’ll probably hear much less of it after Sunday. Because, really, what else is left to question. Between Gottlieb’s tweet and Dickinson’s press conference, Michigan and Ohio State played the sort of basketball game usually reserved for an elevated court in April. Shots hitting nets. Bodies hitting floors. Dickinson and E.J. Liddell battling. Chaundee Brown and Duane Washington Jr. all over the place. Rankings tend to border on meaningless — this, though, felt every bit like No. 3 vs. No. 4.
Michigan came out on top, 92-87. It is, at this point, a prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten regular-season title. The questions left now are reserved for March. So Dickinson hit back at Gottlieb, responding: “Lol.”
“I think coming into the season, some people didn’t have us ranked in the country,” Dickinson said. “Some people had us ranked I think seven in the Big Ten. And so I don’t think it’s anything new to us. I think one way or another, they’re gonna have to, I guess, realize who we are and what we’re about. One way or another.
“We don’t look for anybody’s appreciation. We’re gonna go out there and earn it every day in practice and in the games.”
If you didn’t think those questions were answered before Sunday, look to the first half. The Buckeyes were bringing double-teams on Dickinson every time he put the ball on the floor, making it impossible for him to score inside. So Michigan moved the ball and shot the lights out with 10 3-pointers and 12 assists, keeping it in the game when its defense and its star big man couldn’t.
Or look to halftime. That’s when Brown, one of those players who was on fire from outside in the first half, told Wolverines’ coach Juwan Howard: “Go to Hunter.”
Needing to stop Michigan from shooting more 3-pointers, Ohio State didn’t pressure Dickinson quite as much in the last 20 minutes. So he scored 16 points with five rebounds, including a two-handed dunk that shook the Schottenstein Center’s foundations to put the Wolverines up 82-76.
“They had a 6-7 guy (Liddell) 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.”
You can also look a few minutes before that dunk. That’s when Brown grabbed two straight offensive rebounds underneath Michigan’s basket with Buckeye bodies all around him. He flipped up a putback attempt — the Wolverines’ third shot of what’s technically classified as one possession — that went in. It put Michigan up 71-69, a lead it never relinquished.
“It was very inspiring,” Howard said.
But let’s go back to what Brown said for a second. It gets at the heart of what makes Michigan so good, so frustrating to play, so impossible to defend. You can’t get away with single-covering Dickinson. You can’t get away with leaving the Wolverines’ shooters. Unless you’ve got a big man capable of containing a guy who looks like a Player of the Year candidate or Michigan happens to have a bad day shooting, there’s no answer.
“When it’s time to compete out there on the floor, we talk about all the time, winning the day and be(ing) appreciative of the opportunity to have this time to play basketball,” Howard said. “During these games when there are tough stretches, when we go through scoring droughts or turn the ball over or the other team gets an offensive rebound, our guys always figure it out and stay the course.”
Slowly but surely, the truth of that — the truth of everything Howard preaches — has become evident over the course of the last three months. It’s been impossible to ignore or shrug off since mid-January, when the Wolverines blew the doors off Minnesota and Wisconsin at home.
Since they’ve returned from a COVID-19-induced pause, beating the Badgers on the road, Rutgers at home and Ohio State in what might be the best game of college basketball’s regular season, even those with their heads in the sand have awoken to the possibility that this team might just be playing on a Monday night in April.
“Welp,” Gottlieb tweeted after the game. “Missed this one.”