BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The No. 20 Michigan men’s basketball team’s second neutral site game in a row should’ve felt somewhat familiar. Yet, after a hostile environment at Little Caesars’ Arena last week, with dueling fan bases and screaming student sections, the Wolverines welcomed a change of pace.
On Wednesday night, in a relatively quiet Barclays Center, Michigan itself had a relatively easy night. The Wolverines (3-0 overall) survived the shift in environment, handing Pitt (1-2) a calm yet thumping, 91-60 loss to remain undefeated thus far in non-conference play.
“I think we did a really good job not allowing their fan base to get into it,” graduate guard Joey Baker said. “We kind of kept them at bay then made our run. It was definitely different (at Barclays Center).”
A hot start from the 3-point line gave the Panthers an early lead, but it was nothing Michigan couldn’t overcome. Finding an offensive rhythm of their own — connecting with junior center Hunter Dickinson in the paint and freshman wing Jett Howard around the arc — the Wolverines fell into a steady cadence throughout the first half, patiently extending their lead. At the end of the half, Michigan was no longer trading back-and-forth buckets like it had early on, instead opting for a slow, but marching growth.
On the defensive end, the Wolverines found consistency as Dickinson locked down the paint. Without his usual fiery showmanship, Dickinson’s subdued post presence was the silent leader Michigan needed, containing Pitt’s biggest offensive threat, forward John Hugley, to nine points and one rebound. The Wolverines’ active guards also posed a significant obstacle for Pitt’s offense, forcing sloppy passes and coughing up multiple turnovers.
Exiting the locker room to start the second half, the Wolverines started to make some noise on offense, too. The narratives were reversed as Michigan lit up from behind the 3-point line. Howard opened the half with back-to-back 3-pointers from the wing, followed by another from junior guard Terrance Williams. The long-range sequence quickly extended the Wolverines’ lead — one they’d never come remotely close to relinquishing.
But the early 3-pointers were the extent of the noise.
With few other flashy looks or highlight-reel-worthy plays, Michigan did what needed to be done to keep the Panthers at bay. Running the offense through Dickinson, he continued to find consistency in the paint while also facilitating the scoring attack. Finishing with 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists, Dickinson remained the centerpiece of Michigan’s placid, yet dominant, success. And while he didn’t put up big numbers in the second half, playing just nine minutes and scoring three points, his early calm leadership was the difference maker.
“We’re in a tough conference, the Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences in college basketball,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “So we’re going to need all hands on deck. … Tomorrow we got to match up. We’re gonna need everyone. It’s good to see the guys who normally play high minutes for us get some rest tonight because we know we’re gonna have a big one tomorrow night.”
Jett, while the spark for the second-half scoring attack, once again went mum midway through the half. Sitting the bench for a large majority of the second half with four fouls and eventually fouling out, he added a solid 17 points. Sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin and Baker also tacked on a few key buckets with 14 points apiece.
With four players scoring in double digits, the Wolverines’ offensive attack was diluted across the floor, only adding to the overall modest performance. Getting it done by committee, while not as flamboyant or fun, was what Pitt’s defense required of Michigan, so it’s what the Wolverines provided. And in the process, Michigan proved it can afford a more subdued performance from star players like Dickinson without compromising scoring ability.
Despite the drastic change in environment, the Wolverines once again proved they can adapt to the situation. When the noise was deafening, they could find poise within themselves to close out a tight game.
And when the silence was oppressive, they found success within the quiet.