CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class arrived on campus to join the Michigan men’s basketball team, many outside the program envisioned a second coming of the Fab Five. With sharpshooter wing Caleb Houstan and freak-of-nature forward Moussa Diabate in the fold, expectations were sky high for the Wolverines.
Through the first six games of the season, though, that vision hadn’t yet come to fruition. Houstan and Diabate showed flashes of what they could be but couldn’t do it with much consistency.
Wednesday, when Michigan took on North Carolina in Chapel Hill, that seemed to be changing. Diabate — making his first start of the season — and Houstan carried the Wolverines in the first half, combining for 19 of their 27 points.
But in the second half, the duo’s lack of consistency returned. They looked like freshmen once again, and without its two first-half offensive stalwarts, Michigan was run out of the building by the Tar Heels, 72-51.
“Just taking the shots that we expect them to take (to build confidence),” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “I think a lot of people just have to gain their confidence back.”
Diabate started in place of senior forward Brandon Johns Jr., who has struggled mightily all season, and the move seemed to pay off in the first half. UNC couldn’t find an answer for Diabate early on, and he made it look easy. He consistently beat Tar Heels’ center Armando Bacot, whether it was making jumpers over him or shaking his defender for an easy finish. Diabate even knocked down his first 3-pointer of the season.
“Yeah, I mean he’s a high energy guy,” Brooks said. “So he brought a big spark and he made simple plays and worked for it.”
Houstan, just like Diabate, looked as advertised early on. Despite shooting just 23% from deep through the Wolverines’ first five games, he seemed to put those struggles behind him following a 2-for-5 performance in Michigan’s last game against Tarleton State and a 2-for-3 clip in the first half on Wednesday.
Houstan and Diabate looked to be leading Michigan to an impressive road win, and in doing so, showed a glimpse of the Wolverines’ potential.
But in the second half, it all came crashing down. Diabate knocked down two free throws on Michigan’s first possession of the half and didn’t find twine again, while Houstan missed all four of his shots in a scoreless second half.
The difference? The lack of Hunter Dickinson’s presence on the court. The Wolverines’ star sophomore center picked up his fourth foul just over 1:30 into the second half and sat for over 10 minutes. His absence shifted Diabate permanently to the ‘5,’ allowing Bacot to devote all of his attention to Diabate with help.
“(Hunter’s) a heavy part of our offense, so learning different ways that don’t revolve around him particularly,” Brooks said. “But I mean, as we saw, Moussa’s a good, good option at the five but he’s not the same presence as Hunter.”
Houstan, on the other hand, couldn’t find an open shot with Dickinson off the floor. As had been the case all season, Michigan struggled to circulate the ball without Dickinson, as opposing defenses don’t have to devote the same amount of attention to the paint.
“It’s tough when you’re missing one of your best players,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He played very limited minutes, especially in the second half when we needed the scoring.”
Wednesday’s loss showed that, with or without Dickinson, the Wolverines need the most out of their freshmen to reach their ceiling. Glimpses of stardom, like Wednesday’s first half, make it easy to jump to conclusions about what this team can be.
But Diabate and Houstan have only played seven games. They’re still inexperienced freshmen, and it shows.
And as long as that’s the case, the Michigan team that took the court Wednesday will be the Michigan team of the foreseeable future.