As I surveyed the room at Michigan Media Day, going through my list of interview questions, I knew I was prepared, but still somehow felt lost. It was as if I didn’t recognize half the players on the Michigan men’s basketball team.
There was one more-than familiar face, though. Directly in the middle sat junior center Hunter Dickinson, towering over everyone even while seated. With a swarm of reporters around him, along with junior forward Terrance Williams and junior guard Jace Howard, the three were easily identifiable.
Yet, reliant on the nametags placed in front of each player, I realized that I hadn’t seen many of the faces don the maize and blue until that day.
And likely, neither have you.
Entering their fourth season under the leadership of coach Juwan Howard, the Wolverines underwent a tumultuous offseason that featured major roster turnover. Nine new players — including two graduate transfers, five freshmen and a student-manager turned player — make up the bulk of the team. In fact, there isn’t a true senior on the roster at all. Instead, they’re relying on the transfers to provide veteran knowledge and three juniors for captain leadership.
Graduate transfer guards Jaelin Llewellyn and Joey Baker are the current talk of the town. Llewellyn continues a long line of graduate transfer point guards for Michigan, and Baker is highly touted as an outside shooter. The five freshmen include highly recruited players like guards Jett Howard and Dug McDaniel. Picking up an international player in forward Youseff Khayat, the Wolverines’ roster is impressive on paper, but largely untested in collegiate play. Even Llewellyn and Baker will have to adjust to the Big Ten style of basketball.
But, amid the total team transformation, pre-season speculation about Michigan hasn’t diminished. Predictions about all teams are a constant. Articles are published from the final buzzer of the NCAA Tournament to the tipoff of the next season’s first games. Takes are crafted, rankings are made (and then made again) and the cycle continues.
But this season, that cycle shouldn’t dominate Michigan’s narrative.
It’s too early to judge the Wolverines.
Throughout the offseason, this Michigan team has been placed in every position imaginable. Ranked in a wide range from the top to the bottom of the Big Ten, nobody seems to know what to make of this squad. But that’s just it — you don’t have to.
“I feel like people think we have a lot of question marks around our team,” Dickinson said at Big Ten Media Days on Oct. 12. “We got some transfers that are gonna come in and some freshmen that are gonna come in and play a lot of minutes. … I definitely think we’re being underrated, but I think that’s fine for us.”
Last season, the Wolverines started the season a top title contender, when in reality, they’d endured a large amount of roster turnover, and were still acclimating to an underclassman-dominant team. Coming in as No. 6 in the AP Poll preseason ranking, Michigan was in nearly everyone’s lists of favorites for the Big Ten title, and some even thought it could break the conference’s 22-year national title drought.
It didn’t take long for things to take a turn for the worse. In just one week, the Wolverines dropped from No. 4 to No. 20 in the AP Poll, after a crushing loss to unranked Seton Hall. Michigan eventually fell out of the rankings altogether in Week 5, where they remained for the rest of the season.
Despite that, the Wolverines still managed a historic fifth-straight run to the Sweet 16 after an upset over No. 2 seeded Tennessee — marking a new Big Ten record.
If the Michigan faithful gained anything from last season, it should be perspective. Judging an unproven team is fruitless, and that practice leads to more frustration than enjoyment.
This year’s circumstances warrant different expectations from the Wolverines. Namely, no expectations. There’s no need to judge this team as any better or worse than the teams before it.
“Everyone have their predictions and everyone have their opinions,” Juwan said. “We’re just gonna keep forging ahead and keep growing. Keep trying to get better game by game, practice by practice. … I’m really looking forward to our chances.”
Don’t judge them now, on the cusp of their first exhibition game with Ferris State. Don’t judge them in a month when dominant blue-blood teams like Kentucky and North Carolina pose major challenges for them. Don’t judge them in two months, or three, or four or when you’re sitting on your couch watching the March Madness Selection Show because they’ve proven their seed isn’t their ceiling.
And it extends beyond just team-wide expectations.
Don’t judge Dickinson’s ability to mesh with new point guard Llewellyn from the get-go. Don’t judge Baker’s initial shooting ability after an off-season hip surgery. Don’t judge Jett playing college ball for the first time differently because his dad’s the coach. Don’t judge the head-scratching lineups they’ll throw on the floor while they’re still figuring out their identity.
Instead, maybe get to know them first.