Transitioning from high school to college basketball can be a daunting task for any player. 

In addition to adjusting to their new lives off the court, freshmen have to adapt to the speed and physicality of the college game, learn new schemes and take on completely different roles. For most incoming freshmen, in no area is this leap more considerable than on defense — especially at the high-major level. 

“Defending and rebounding are two things that it normally takes young guys a while to grasp,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington told The Daily on Sept. 30. “Most freshmen come in pretty high level from an offensive perspective, but I think the guys that really understand early defensive principles, being able to defend without fouling… that get a lot of opportunities to play.”

After three weeks of practice, the freshmen of the Michigan men’s basketball team are in the midst of that adjustment.

For freshman center Hunter Dickinson learning to defend properly in college means using his entire 7-foot-1, 255-pound frame to fight for positioning in the low-post and force the opposing big into a low-percentage look.

“In high school, I was able to relax more,” Dickinson said. “Especially in practice and then in games, the other team’s big man usually wasn’t too good. I was able to relax, just play behind and if I just walled up really well and made him shoot over me, most of the time, he would miss and I would be fine. … Now you really have to fight them and make them get pushed out because if they bury you too deep, the big men — especially Jaron (Faulds) and Austin (Davis) being so skilled — they’re gonna score.”

Whereas in high school, referees wouldn’t allow Dickinson to play too physically on defense, Big Ten competition requires it. When playing the likes of Iowa’s Luka Garza or Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Dickinson will have to match their physicality to stand any chance. 

“It’s more accepted for you to throw your body around,” Dickinson said. “I just gotta get more used to that because I haven’t been able to previously.

“As a big man, you have to have a little nasty in you because of the position and the role you play. … There’s a lot of banging and stuff going on so you have to have a little nasty in you. You have to enjoy getting hit and laying out some punishment as well.”

As the nation’s 42nd-ranked player in the class of 2021, Dickinson has the talent to develop into a key contributor for Michigan right away. But his ability to play solid defense and stay out of foul trouble will go a long way in determining his role. Luckily for Dickinson, he can turn to veteran centers Austin Davis and Jaron Faulds, or coach Juwan Howard and Director of Basketball Operations Chris Hunter — both of whom were former Wolverine big men.

Michigan’s three other freshmen — guard Zeb Jackson and wings Terrance Williams and Jace Howard — are also learning the ropes on defense. As primarily perimeter players, though, they’ve had to adjust in a different way than Dickinson. 

Compared to high school basketball, defending ball screens is emphasized a lot more in college. For most incoming freshmen, there’s a large learning curve when it comes to playing different ball screen actions. As a result, teaching Jackson, Williams and Howard how to navigate them has been a focus so far. 

“I think for people who didn’t guard ball screens in high school, where it was more iso and free-flowing, dribble-drive defense, it’s tougher,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “In high school, they don’t teach ball-screen defense like they do in college so the different coverages can mess with people. 

“You see 70 different actions out of ball screens. … Just trying to teach them as we go cause we had a short amount of time to teach, couldn’t teach them during open gym so we’re happy to do that during practice.”

As Michigan’s best perimeter defender, Brooks understands just how difficult it can be to defend at the collegiate level and in the Big Ten specifically. In the Wolverines’ second meeting with Michigan State last season, Brooks locked down All-American guard Cassius Winston en route to a 77-68 win. Not only will Michigan need Brooks to replicate performances like that again this year, but the Wolverines hope Brooks’ effort defensively will rub off on his freshmen teammates. 

“My advice would be — there’s a lot of good players in this league, so if you stay in front of them and contest, that’s all you can do really,” Brooks said. “Just don’t give up blow-bys, don’t foul a jump shooter, just simple things like that. When you look at the numbers — coach (Phil) Martelli has them — there’s a big difference with the amount of makes when a person is contested versus not contested. Just contest everything and don’t give up on plays. You’re going to get beat because there are a lot of good players who are going to make shots. But just don’t keep your head down.

“For me it’s mostly mental, like if you want to do it, you can do it. Anybody can play defense. It’s a mindset.”

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