Telling the Michigan men’s basketball team to use Hunter Dickinson as the focal point of its offense is not a groundbreaking take.
The sophomore center is a fearsome presence down low and the most common play the Wolverines have is to give him the ball and clear out.
But in Tuesday night’s game against Maryland, something switched.
In the matchups with the Terrapins last season in Ann Arbor and at the Big Ten Tournament, Maryland committed heavily to double teaming Dickinson in the post. The coaching staff identified this and told Dickinson to put more of an emphasis on passing out of it. While he still expected to get his touches down low, he was prepared to distribute more outlet passes to shooters on the perimeter.
The result? A career-high six assists and a resounding 83-64 win.
“I assumed they were going to double-team,” Dickinson said. “I think my teammates did a really good job of making them pay for the double teams today.”
Dickinson’s extra emphasis on passing exploited the Terrapins’ defense and worked to perfection. Four of his assists came on 3-pointers, which was a welcome sight for a team that has struggled from distance all season. But this strategy, for the large part, has been underutilized — and pivoting toward it could be a key for saving Michigan’s season.
The hulking seven-footer has been the Wolverines’ most reliable scoring option all season, averaging 16.4 points a game. However, the high-scoring outbursts have not always translated to wins. Dickinson put up 25 against Rutgers, but Michigan lost by eight. He poured in 19 against Minnesota in a 10-point loss. He had just two assists in each of the losses.
The Wolverines can no longer afford to simply rely on Dickinson to bail them out with his scoring. They have to play through him. Dickinson’s presence will always attract defenders towards the paint, and when he consistently passses out of the post, he can create more open looks for shooters and increased space for the offense to flow.
“It’s a lot easier,” fifth-year guard DeVante’ Jones said of conducting the offense when Dickinson attracts double teams. “The defense can’t help as much so I got a lot more space, a lot more time to make decisions and see different reads.”
It seems like a clear strategy, but throughout Dickinson’s collegiate career, he has never excelled with passing. The six-assist outburst was just the third time in 42 games he’s had more than three. Last season, Dickinson could afford to muck it up down low while the wings created looks for themselves. But this year, Michigan has not been able to find the same success on offense. The struggles on that end of the floor are a big reason the Wolverines currently stand at 8-7 and are on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament.
The extra passing can have a two-fold effect. If Dickinson draws a double team, he can pass out to open shooters and hope they can knock down their looks. If the defense is forced to respect the shooting, it leaves Dickinson with favorable one-on-one matchups down low.
That offensive approach was a nightmare against the Terrapins. On the first possession, Dickinson took it right to the hole for an easy layup. The next possession, Dickinson bounced a pass to freshman forward Caleb Houstan for an easy three.
The approach can be deployed against anyone in the Big Ten, so long as Dickinson is willing to commit to it.
The time for Michigan to turn it around is, frankly, running out. But, an offensive attack that runs Dickinson effectively as a point-center, without it being clear whether he’ll pass or make a move towards the basket from the low block or the free throw line on any given possession, makes the Wolverines a much more difficult team to defend.
“I think today was an example of what we’re capable of when we’re playing our brand of basketball when (it comes to) sharing the ball and making our shots,” Dickinson said. “We’ve got 15 more games left. We’re confident that we can make a run and turn the season around.”