Midway through the second half, the No. 22 Michigan men’s basketball team needed a spark. There was no desperation, as the team held a steady lead throughout its first game against an inferior Purdue Fort Wayne squad. But, still, energy on the court was needed.
Junior center Hunter Dickinson, the reliable veteran, has often been this source for the Wolverines. But, it’s a new season — and new faces stepped up.
Within the span of one minute, freshman guard Jett Howard put his stamp on the season opener, draining a three and immediately following it up with a block. Moments later, he drained yet another three, restoring the energy the team craved.
That sequence was emblematic of Howard’s presence throughout the game. Benefitting from Dickinson’s dominance inside, the duo complemented each other and powered the Wolverines (1-0 overall) to a season-opening win against the Mastodons (0-1), 75-56.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Dickinson said Monday. “We got a lot of new parts, and so there’s still that figuring out phase. We have a good little mix of guys that are able to be plugged in and out. A lot of guys that are very versatile and able to play many positions.”
The first four minutes of the game were disjointed, which could be expected for a team returning just one starter from last year’s Sweet 16 squad. Missed open 3-pointers, errant passes and defensive lapses led the Wolverines to struggle in the early onset of the game. Dickinson was the team’s only scorer four minutes into the game.
“I know something that was a big emphasis for me was coming out strong,” Dickinson said. “I was really glad I was able to get out there. My teammates put me in great positions. They were obviously unselfish, getting me the ball in the right spots.”
Graduate guard Joey Baker got the team into a shooting rhythm coming off the bench. Baker capitalized on good ball movement from his teammates, draining an open three-pointer to spark an 18-0 scoring run and push Michigan into a lead it never relinquished.
During the scoring run, the Wolverines flashed their high potential. The improvements in the 3-point shooting were evident even through one game. Baker and Howard’s outside shooting opened up the court for others to drive the paint, Dickinson the primary benefactor from this improvement.
Dickinson proved to be a size mismatch for an undersized Purdue Fort Wayne squad, finishing with 22 points and 12 rebounds. He easily broke through double teams in the paint, finding open teammates on the perimeter when necessary.
The Wolverines dug deep into their rotation in the first half, playing 10 different players. Off the bench, freshman guard Dug McDaniel, junior guard Jace Howard and freshman forward Tarris Reed Jr. all saw quality minutes.
“There are going to be so many different lineups,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “There may be so many different guys that may play one game, some may not play one game because we have a deep team, but we also have a team that’s still growing. We are young and there are going to be some moments where you see one guy might not play one game. … I’m still feeling the group out.”
The second half opened just like the first half ended, with a Jett 3-pointer. Coming off a 30-point exhibition game on Friday, Jett performed an impressive encore — finishing with 21 points, going 5-for-10 from three and using his size and speed to drive to the basket. His presence was felt on almost every possession.
“(When) my night started off, I didn’t hit every shot I wanted to hit and I let up a few three’s on defense,” Jett said. “I kind of got down a little bit, but I just stayed the course. Didn’t get too high, didn’t get too low.”
In a slow-moving game, Michigan struggled to score at a fast pace with its starters on the bench for the majority of the second half. But the rotation players did their job, biding time for the starters and holding onto a double-digit lead.
And when the starters did return, it was Dickinson and Jett that provided the scoring spark the Wolverines longed for to truly put the game out of reach.
As the only Wolverines scoring in double digits, that duo may prove to be the most reliable scoring options for Michigan moving forward.
Although they showed signs of early-season rust, the Wolverines handled business against an inferior Mastodon squad.