The Michigan men’s basketball team is at a tipping point.
With sloppy play and a winless record against ranked opponents so far this season, the Wolverines are in a tough position, with each remaining game critical to their fate. Michigan’s matchup against No. 18 Indiana Saturday is especially crucial.
The Wolverines may have three straight wins, but they haven’t yet proven that they can get the job done against top tier teams. Without that, a lot of unanswered questions about their true capabilities remain.
“Even though we went on that three-game win streak, a lot of people aren’t giving us credit,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said. “They’re saying how the three wins weren’t really that big and that we’re finally playing a worthy opponent.”
That criticism may be true about Michigan’s recent success, but the results still provide important momentum. And that can be used to take the next step.
But in order to do that, the Wolverines have to go through one of the best players not only in the Big Ten, but in the nation. At 6-foot-9, Hoosiers forward Trayce Jackson-Davis may have a height disadvantage to Dickinson, but other aspects provide huge upsides. His comprehensive offensive skill set, rebounding strength and defensive fortitude pose an immense threat.
“Trayce is probably one of the best players in the league,” Michigan assistant coach Howard Eisley said. “He’s having a phenomenal year and he’s really improved his skill set. He’s gonna be a force for us to reckon with, him scoring on a low post and his offensive rebounding and his presence on the defensive end as well. We have to do a good job on him, it starts there.”
The high praise Jackson-Davis receives this season is certainly warranted. Averaging 19.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.04 blocks per game, Jackson-Davis has been the driving force behind Indiana’s strong season.
Given those impressive stats, the contest’s outcome really does stem from the matchup between the two bigs. If the Wolverines can contain Jackson-Davis while Dickinson sets the tone early, Michigan can use that as momentum to propel success on both ends of the court. But if that doesn’t happen, the Wolverines could struggle.
In their last game against an elite big, that fate played out.
When Michigan faced Purdue two weeks ago, center Zach Edey took charge early, and the Wolverines never recovered. Although Dickinson did ultimately find success against the Boilermakers, his passive play early in the game proved detrimental. Still, that experience — and each experience against other talented Big Ten bigs — enables growth.
“I think it will be a really fun matchup,” Dickinson said. “I enjoy playing really great players because they usually bring the best out of me. That’s why I decided to come to the Big Ten because I know that’s where the best bigs are.”
This matchup is nothing new for either big. In Dickinson and Jackson-Davis’s first two seasons, they squared off three times. In those games, Dickinson averaged 17.67 points per game, while Jackson-Davis put up a nearly-identical figure with 17 points per game. Each time the bigs have faced off, both backed up their respective acclaim. It seems unlikely that tomorrow’s contest would be any different, but the question of who comes out on top could hinge on who pulls ahead.
Beyond that one-on-one battle, though, Dickinson understands the stakes of this game. Outplaying Jackson-Davis goes beyond winning the individual matchups — it can dictate the contest’s outcome. And, at this point in the season, Michigan needs every win it can get.
“This is definitely a game where we want to make our stand and kind of put not only the league, but the country on notice that we’re playing really good basketball right now,” Dickinson said. “We’re trying to make a serious run at this thing.”
Michigan’s season has been filled with missed opportunities and ambiguous expectations. But Saturday’s game will provide some clarity about the significance of the Wolverines’ recent surge.
And if they want to show it’s not just a surge but rather sustained growth, that starts with Dickinson winning the Battle of the Bigs.