With 2:30 remaining and the Michigan men’s basketball team in desperate need of a basket down by six, freshman forward Caleb Houstan found Hunter Dickinson down low, seemingly with some separation.
Rather than drop his left foot for an easy right-handed finish, though, the sophomore center backed down his man and went up with his left, and couldn’t convert.
One possession later, the deficit still six following a Minnesota 10-second violation, Dickinson again tried to back down his man and finish with his left. And once again, Dickinson came up empty.
“We got a paint touch and Hunter got the ball in the paint,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Ball came off his palm when he went to shoot it. It’s just tough to make shots like that. That was one possession where we could have truly cut it to (four) and it would’ve been more pressure on them.”
All season, the Wolverines have gone as far as their star center has been able to take them; not a surprise given his stature, but Michigan has often failed to find enough supplementary scoring. As a result, the Wolverines have struggled to keep pace offensively when teams manage to contain Dickinson. The same was true in Saturday’s 75-65 loss to the Golden Gophers, despite Dickinson’s 19 points.
In Michigan’s two previous games — both wins — it fed Dickinson early and often, and the same was true in the first half of Saturday’s game. Minnesota consistently left him in single-coverage and Dickinson made the Gophers pay, taking his time to knock down jumpers over a shorter defender or backing down his man for an easy finish. And when Minnesota did send a double team his way, Dickinson was able to pass out of it and set up a teammate.
“We knew we weren’t going to shut him out,” Minnesota coach Ben Johnson said. “He’s an all-league player. He’s a potential pro, go play at the next level. We just wanted to make him earn everything he got.”
Dickinson scored 14 points in the first half on 7-for-8 shooting, just as the Wolverines drew it up. It looked to be another potential victory led by the dominant big man.
In the second half, though, Dickinson’s post touches came few and far between. Instead, Michigan’s guards looked to drive and its perimeter threats settled for jumpers, resulting in lots of empty possessions. Just over five minutes into the half, Dickinson had only attempted one interior shot, and a four-point halftime lead quickly became a seven-point deficit.
“I think it was just the way the game went,” Dickinson said. “I felt like they were coming in and doubling a little bit more on my post-ups so I was kicking it out to my shooters. That’s what I was reading out there.”
Dickinson remained quiet until those two late misses, while the Gophers’ lead became more and more insurmountable. The dominant force that was present in the first half barely made an impact, totalling just five second-half points.
“We really didn’t make too many (adjustments),” Johnson said. “He’s a heck of a player and, and obviously we don’t have the 7-foot or (6-foot-11) or (6-foot-10) size to go toe-to-toe with him, and we just wanted to continue to make his catches tough, force him out of the block, make him take tough twos.”
In the Wolverines’ worst games earlier in the season, Michigan’s opponents made entry passes to Dickinson difficult and effectively shut him down, even if they couldn’t match his height. But following two consecutive wins in which Dickinson averaged 19 points per game, some of those issues seemed to be in the past.
In the second half of Saturday’s game, though, the issue once again presented itself. And even when Dickinson got a quality post touch down the stretch, he wasn’t able to convert.
“That possession keeps coming back in my head, when we were down (60 to 66),” Howard said. “That one hurt.”