To find its rhythm this season, Michigan needs Hunter Dickinson to meet his preseason All-American and potential Big Ten Player of the Year expectations.
It needs the sophomore center to be the focal point of the offense, an unstoppable force in the paint ready to match up against a league full of game-wrecking big men.
So far, that just hasn’t been the case.
Whether due to a lack of touches, spacing or chemistry — outside of the opener against Buffalo, when he scored 27 — Dickinson hasn’t been the same as he was last year. And because of that, through seven games, the Wolverines’ offense has proven underwhelming.
In Wednesday’s blowout loss to North Carolina, they managed to muster just 51 points against a Tar Heel team that has been giving up an average well above 70. Dickinson played just 18 minutes due to foul trouble and had just four points on five attempts. That’s the fewest minutes he’s played as a starter and second fewest points.
“Well, I saw that we missed one of our best players,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after the loss. “This is teachable, I trust we’ll get better from this. But, it’s tough to win any game when one of your best players only plays 17 minutes.”
Even had Dickinson played his usual 30 minutes, there isn’t much reason to expect that the result would’ve changed substantially.
This game in Chapel Hill was a glaring example of the struggles that have plagued Dickinson and the Michigan offense early in the season.
The Wolverines have had a hard time getting him high-quality post touches. This was the third game in which he has taken under 10 shots and the second in a row in which he has taken six or less.
A variety of factors have contributed to these struggles. For example, Michigan’s early schedule has been composed of some very long and athletic teams — Seton Hall, Arizona and North Carolina — all of which made life difficult for the Wolverines’ offense in the half court. Michigan’s spacing has also left much to be desired. This is a product of the Wolverines’ rocky start to shooting from beyond the arc; Michigan is shooting under 30% from three as a team.
Against the Tar Heels, everytime Dickinson would get the ball in the post he would immediately be swarmed by up to three defenders, forcing him to send the ball back up to guards. There, the offense would inevitably stall — a dynamic that has been pervasive this season.
While not every team the Wolverines play will have the same physical advantages as those mentioned, the spacing issue won’t go away on its own. It’s an issue that can only be fixed with shot-making.
There’s also been the issue of chemistry, a point Dickinson brought up before the game against North Carolina on Nov. 30:
“I think we’re not clicking as a unit, so obviously there’s like the trickle down effect to that,” Dickinson said. “I think we’re just trying to find our groove right now, find that chemistry and trust in each other.”
The connection between graduate-transfer guard DeVante’ Jones and Dickinson is a far cry from the connection Dickinson shared with former guard Mike Smith just a year ago. Because of this, Michigan has struggled to generate offense from ball screens at times this season, something that Dickinson thrived in doing last year.
Even still, Dickinson and the Wolverines aren’t ready to panic yet, they’re just “staying the course” as their captain, fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said after the loss. They know that it’s still early and there is a path to improvement.
“As long as we buy into the offense, and what coach Howard is teaching us, and the plays and stuff like that,” Dickinson said on Nov. 30. “I feel like everything will sort itself out.”
For that to be the case, and for everything to get sorted out sooner rather than later, the offense will need to make adjustments and get better. That starts with Dickinson.