DETROIT — Hunter Dickinson stood poised in the paint. As the clock continued to tick down in the No. 22 Michigan men’s basketball team’s matchup with Eastern Michigan at Little Caesars Arena, the junior center had yet another chance to prove the merit of his preseason All-American accolade.
Spinning in the lane, one-on-one with his defender for nearly the first time all night, Dickinson did what he does best — made a tough shot look like a cakewalk. As the ball fell cleanly through the hoop, the Wolverines took their longest lead of the night at seven points.
And not a moment too soon. Eagles forward Emoni Bates’ next playmaking move was a nailed 3-pointer. But Dickinson’s bucket negated Bates’ shot, leading Michigan to their first competitive win of the season.
“He enjoys going out there and competing,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “And it’s tough sometimes when you have smaller guys that are walking underneath you, beating on your arm. … But Hunter, he’s just working.”
While Dickinson started the game confident in his abilities after two dominating non-conference wins, it quickly became evident that Eastern Michigan wasn’t going down without a fight. The Eagles’ game plan revolved around Dickinson, literally. Swarming him down in the post, it was hard for Dickinson to get a dribble down that wasn’t slapped at, or a shot off that didn’t go through at least three different arms.
Howard made quick substitution decisions after the under-12 timeout in the first half, and Dickinson proceeded to sit the bench for the next 10 minutes. With freshman center Tarris Reed Jr. taking over down low, Michigan struggled even more offensively.
After a relatively quiet first half — as quiet a half Dickinson can have — at 12 points and one rebound, the Wolverines desperately needed help down the stretch. Especially with lackluster offensive production, sloppy ball handling and a crumbling defense.
At first, it seemed as if the Dickinson that had exited the locker room at the half was the same one that had entered it. Dribbling the ball of his foot and making errant passes within the first few minutes of the half, the Wolverines seemed to be without a star.
Finally finding his rhythm, Dickinson began playing the post style of basketball he’s known for — tough, physical and dominant.
“Hunter Dickinson’s a problem,” Eastern Michigan coach Stan Heath said. “That guy’s a load. He can score in different ways. We tried to get him different looks — double teams, single coverage, sag off in front and behind — all those different things. But it’s kind of a pick-your-poison situation. If you go too much on him they’ve got some other guys that can shoot and make some plays as well too.”
Going 8-for-8 from the field and 3-for-3 from the free throw line, and adding another six rebounds, Dickinson scored a quick 19 points in just 19 minutes of play. With his dominance came a renewed emphasis on the Eagles’ initial game plan of swarming Dickinson in the paint.
But that’s what makes Dickinson such a threat on the floor.
“Me and Hunter, we definitely took (the challenge to be second-half leaders) to heart,” junior guard Terrance Williams III said. “Because we’re the senior leader veterans and coach (Howard) looks to us when times are rough, which it was. We were down at half. So we just had to come out and bring energy as leaders and I feel like we did that.”
As he continued to draw help defense down into the lane, it opened up the floor for other players to create like graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn, which would prove vital to keeping Michigan’s minuscule lead alive.
As the opponents only get tougher, and the post players continue to get bigger, the Wolverines will continue to rely on Dickinson to get them through games. Running their offense through him and depending on his veteran leadership on such an underclassman dominant team, Dickinson once again proved he was up to the challenge.