Over the past two weeks, the Michigan men’s basketball team has gone through a rough patch. Between two hard-fought losses to ranked opponents and graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn’s season-ending ACL injury, the Wolverines haven’t had much to be happy for.
But on Thursday, Michigan (6-3 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) finally found something to celebrate, getting into a groove offensively and using that to take down Minnesota (4-5, 0-1), 90-75, to get back in the win column.
And the Wolverines did so utilizing an unfamiliar lineup.
With Llewellyn out, freshman guard Dug McDaniel became the starting point guard. Even with a different player at the helm of the offense, Michigan was in sync from the get-go. Helping the Wolverines get in sync was an ounce of familiarity amongst the changes. Michigan’s offensive charge began the same way it has all year: through junior center Hunter Dickinson.
The Wolverines’ first seven points came from Dickinson, who showed once again that he’s a threat both driving and shooting the ball. But Dickinson wasn’t the only player who took charge; several other faces contributed early. Sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin, freshman wing Jett Howard and McDaniel — and his chemistry with Dickinson — played key roles in that.
“I feel like that chemistry is naturally there,” McDaniel told Big Ten Network postgame. “Big man (and) point guard chemistry is always important. (Dickinson is) the biggest guy on the floor, I’m always the smallest guy on the floor, so just making sure we’re always locked in, making sure we’re always on the same page is really important.”
After two straight games in which Michigan displayed its ability to hang around but not pull away, the Wolverines finally did so against the Golden Gophers. And that came from players like McDaniel, who stepped up and integrated himself into the starting lineup seamlessly.
Although he turned the ball over on the first possession of the game, that miscue was all McDaniel needed to shake the nerves. He followed it up by going a perfect 2-for-2 from deep, while dishing out four assists early on.
Given the struggles Michigan has faced recently with both game and player losses, it was unclear how the Wolverines would come out against Minnesota. Midway through the first half, though, Michigan’s identity was unambiguous. Through strong ball movement and consistent shooting, it dominated the court.
With production from players up and down the roster, the Wolverines went into halftime with a comfortable 16-point lead.
But that wasn’t necessarily enough to guarantee a win. So far this season, Michigan has struggled to play complete games. In its last two games against No. 3 Virginia and No. 19 Kentucky, that was especially apparent. But on Thursday, the Wolverines found success throughout the entirety of the game.
They displayed a clear winning mindset from start to finish, and after halftime that stemmed from McDaniel. Going 3-for-3 in the second half en route to a 15-point, seven assist and three-steal performance, McDaniel exemplified how he can fill the void left by Llewellyn’s injury.
“(McDaniel’s a) floor general,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told Big Ten Network. “That young man has the heart of a lion, and the type of mental toughness that Dug has displayed, … I’m not surprised, and that was a big reason why I wanted him to be a part of our team.”
By proving to be a scoring threat and showing his defensive potential against the Gophers, McDaniel pushed the Wolverines’ lead even wider. In doing so, Minnesota struggled to find opportunities to storm back, preventing any comeback.
Although Michigan beat the Gophers in convincing fashion, it is looking beyond the victory. Now, its focus is the season ahead and what it needs to do to maintain this success.
“(Now we’re looking at) the defensive lulls (and) the times where we get stagnant on offense,” McDaniel said. “(We need to) just sharpen up the things that we’re gonna need in the future.”
McDaniel has only played eight games at the collegiate level so far, and entering Thursday’s game it was unclear how the freshman’s abilities would look leading the Wolverines’ offense.
But, at least for a game, McDaniel put those questions to bed. He showed how his talent can facilitate success beyond him. Against Minnesota, that helped lead Michigan to victory as it opened conference play.