INDIANAPOLIS — You can’t teach size.
Sure, Tennessee could do all it wanted to get ready for Michigan’s frontcourt. It could scheme up ball denials, get aggressive and try to wreak havoc in the paint. But the truth is, the Volunteers had no way to prepare for the 7-foot-1 behemoth that was coming their way.
On Saturday night, over and over again, Hunter Dickinson proved there would be no denying him. The sophomore center dominated Tennessee, flipping home post shots, drawing and-ones and even splashing home some 3-pointers along the way to lead the Wolverines to a stunning victory. The final statline was just as emphatic as the energy Dickinson displayed as he pumped his arms towards the Michigan faithful after the final buzzer.
27 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three made threes — all while playing 38-of-40 minutes.
“Just being able to play in the NCAA Tournament is a dream come true for any basketball player,” Dickinson said. “Every kid grows up watching the NCAA Tournament, and being able to play good in it is an amazing experience.”
He demanded the ball down low and welcomed double teams when Tennessee showed from the get-go that no matter what fight they put up, there was no way to contain him. When the paint was too clogged he popped out to the 3-point line to show off his range. And ultimately, when Michigan needed a bucket, he gave them a bucket.
“I told him, ‘We were going to you on the inside, you’re the backbone of our team so be ready.’ ” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I also asked him to be greedy. And what does that mean? Be aggressive.”
Tennessee came into the matchup known for its defense, averaging over nine steals a game. The Volunteers were also one of the hottest teams in the country, losing just one game since February and recently winning the SEC Tournament championship. But none of those accolades mattered. Dickinson’s size was the great equalizer.
After the game, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes expressed his frustration with Dickinson’s inevitability.
“When he hurt us the most was when they did exactly what we thought they would do,” Barnes said. “Coming out of halftime, they would try to establish him on the block there. And, again, we knew that. And, again, did we think we could shut him out? We didn’t.”
Entering the second half, the game was slipping away from the Wolverines. They trailed by five, had scored just two points in the last five minutes of the first half and were a slow start away from watching their chance to win the game disappear for good.
But Dickinson refused to let that happen.
He scored the first nine points for Michigan in the second half, matching the Volunteers pace and quickly making it a two-point ballgame. A few possessions later, Dickinson stood at the top of the key and launched a 3-pointer which found the bottom of the net — giving the Wolverines a 50-49 lead.
The game took more twists and turns, but ultimately, Dickinson’s presence ensured a victory for Michigan was within reach.
He’s become the team’s villain, unafraid of the animosity that comes with his cheeky celebrations after every made basket. And when the Wolverines needed a performance from their superstar, he delivered.
“When you put in the work, you’re going to get good results,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It’s no surprise to me how he’s been able to produce so far (in his) two years here at the University of Michigan.”
As Dickinson sat at the podium postgame, his mouthful of a statline, ironically, left him with few words to describe the momentous performance he had just delivered. Instead, he could only lean into his brash confidence and focus on what lay ahead for the Wolverines.
“Making it to the Sweet Sixteen is as literal as it is; sweet,” Dickinson said. “Because nobody believed in us. Everybody thought we shouldn’t be in the tournament. And now people that were hating on us are going home and about to watch us next week.”