When the Michigan men’s basketball team and then-No. 10 Michigan State met at the end of January, the Wolverines seemed to have a clear advantage in the paint. After all, none of the Spartans’ bigs could match the offensive prowess of sophomore center Hunter Dickinson.
But the game played out in a different fashion. Dickinson needed 19 shots to score 25 points in the blowout loss, and Michigan State equaled Michigan in points in the paint and led in second-chance points even though the Wolverines dominated the offensive glass.
Tuesday’s rematch between the two teams told a much different story. Michigan (16-12 overall, 10-8 Big Ten) controlled the interior and toppled the Spartans (19-10, 10-8), 87-70, led by a career-high 33 points from Dickinson.
“We told him …, ‘They’re going to send four big bodies, and we’re going through you,’ ” Michigan acting head coach Phil Martelli said. “And he took 19 shots up (in East Lansing), and he took 19 shots today. And I remember saying to (assistant coach) Howard Eisley, ‘If Hunter gets 19 shots in this game, we’re gonna win the game.’ ”
From the start, the Wolverines’ offense looked as good as it had all season. Michigan State was able to keep up for the first few minutes by pushing the pace and occasionally catching Michigan off guard. When graduate guard DeVante’ Jones picked up his second foul just three minutes in, its strong offensive start could have quickly turned south.
Instead, the Wolverines didn’t miss a beat without their starting point guard on the floor for nearly the remainder of the half. Soon after Jones took a seat, Michigan went on a 14-0 run to take a 12-point lead, which extended to 16 by halftime. And while Dickinson led the charge for most of the half, production came from all over.
In Jones’s stead, freshman guard Frankie Collins ran the offense with ease, slicing up the Spartans’ defense off the dribble and tallying four first-half assists. Sophomore forward Terrance Williams II knocked down three 3-pointers, while senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. chipped in one of his own.
These contributions opened up the floor for Dickinson to go to work. Michigan State couldn’t hound him like they did in the prior meeting, and it didn’t matter what it threw at him. He utilized nearly his entire arsenal to score 12 first half points on 6-of-8 shooting. On the defensive side, he was just as dominant, challenging everything that came his way and blocking three shots.
“I don’t think you can minimize what he did at the other end of the floor,” Martelli said. “Once we stopped transition, we knew that the ball screen in the middle of the floor was the action. And we asked Hunter to get uncomfortable. We weren’t going to drop. We wanted him to be up, and for the most part he did.”
Coming out of the half, Dickinson picked up right where he left off. Once again, it didn’t matter who he was matched up against; he scored on them with ease, converting on the Wolverines’ first two possessions of the half.
Dickinson’s impact was just as obvious when he wasn’t on the floor. The Spartans were able to cut into the 20-point deficit during his three-minute stint on the bench, but upon his return, they never came much closer.
When Dickinson re-entered the game, he quickly took over. And with the Spartans still scoring with relative ease, his dominance was all the more important. Dickinson got to the line with Michigan State trying to play him more physically and finished off a series of dunks to score 10-straight points for the Wolverines, single-handedly keeping pace with the Spartans over a three-minute stretch to stave off any serious comeback attempt.
“I was going over it with (temporary assistant coach Chris Hunter),” Dickinson said. “And just talking about trying to do different things to get them off guard and not just have their feet just planted in the ground. It’s hard for anybody to go against that. So just trying to work for deeper position.”
All season, Dickinson has been Michigan’s go-to guy, its stalwart, its saving grace.
Tuesday, though, he turned in his best performance yet, powering the Wolverines to a much-needed rivalry win.