Up just five points with 13 minutes left, junior center Hunter Dickinson caught the ball in the high post while turning to face up Ohio State center Felix Okpara — no double team in sight. Sweeping the ball low to his left hand, Dickinson dribbled left. Bumped once off of Okpara, almost to the low block. Bumped twice off of Okpara, at the rim. Dickinson layed it up and in.
Sauntering down the floor, he celebrated with an arm stretched downward and a hand parallel with the hardwood. His message was clear:
The 6-foot-11 Okpara was too small.
Dickinson notched a signature performance — finishing with 26 points and 11 rebounds — against the Buckeyes at Crisler Center on Sunday. That performance was, in part, due to Dickinson’s ability to exploit mismatches in the post.
“Hunter recognizes, as well as his teammates, when the big fella had it going on the inside,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We had to continue to keep feeding him the ball. I’ll never forget, on a timeout, Terrance Williams was like, ‘Let’s keep going to Hunter.’ And I said, ‘You know what, I agree. We’re going to keep going to Hunter.’ ”
Matched up with either Okpara or forward Zed Key, Dickinson handled both of Ohio State’s defensive options with ease. Okpara proved too skinny, and Dickinson simply went through him. Key proved too short at 6-foot-8, and the towering 7-foot-1 Dickinson went over him — unleashing a barrage of hook shots that the forward never had a chance of contesting.
“(Dickinson) reads the defense,” Howard said. “When he’s not doubled, he’s going to make his move one-on-one. If he gets doubled, he’s going to throw the ball out.”
That ability to read the defense made Dickinson’s performance against the Buckeyes so impressive. Staying calm under pressure and demonstrating a knack for making the right plays, Dickinson remained poised throughout the contest. That showed as he played all but four minutes yet finished with only one turnover. And the way he facilitated the Wolverines’ offense from the post made that statistic all the more impressive.
That ability to facilitate was on display when, with seven minutes left, freshman guard Dug McDaniel fed Dickinson in the high post. Turning to survey the court, Dickinson found himself in a familiar position. This time, instead of releasing a mid-range jumper or taking his defender off the bounce, he zipped a skip pass to graduate guard Joey Baker in the opposite corner. Baker knocked down the three, giving Michigan a 12-point cushion with the momentum-boosting shot.
“There were times late in the second half when (Dickinson) had a chance to go one-on-one, but he still was throwing it out to the perimeter,” Howard said. “That’s just the nature of being an unselfish player, wanting to make the right play. That just gives a lot of credit to the kind of competitor that Hunter is, but he’s also dialed into team, team, team.”
Just two minutes later Dickinson flashed that unselfishness again, throwing an almost identical pass, this time to sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin. Bufkin missed the wide-open 3-pointer, but it was the right pass and the right shot — textbook basketball.
“When a guy like Hunter plays his best it’s a scary sight,” Bufkin said. “It’s always huge for us when he plays great.”
After failing to effectively lead a younger Michigan squad early in the year, Dickinson is turning a corner. Sure, he still averages 18.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, but only recently — against Northwestern and Ohio State — has he put together the performances that Michigan needs to make a tournament push and flip the script on its lackluster season.
At his best, Dickinson is one of college basketball’s elites. One of the Big Ten’s bonafide stars. And Sunday against Ohio State, one scary sight, indeed.