Hunter Dickinson is imperative to the success of the Michigan men’s basketball team — it’s maybe the most obvious statement that can be made about this group.
That doesn’t make it any less true.
In the Wolverines’ narrow escape from Nebraska — a team yet to win in Big Ten play — on Tuesday night, that statement rang truer than ever. After picking up his second foul just five minutes into the game, the sophomore center was relegated to the bench.
“For me, personally, (the key to playing a complete game is) just staying out of foul trouble,” Dickinson said. “If I can stay out of foul trouble, I might be able to play a full 40 minutes.”
Without him, Michigan flailed, and the Cornhuskers capitalized. For the remaining 15 minutes of the first half, Michigan coach Juwan Howard attempted to plug the holes in the Wolverines’ sinking ship with a plethora of rotations, but to no avail.
Without Dickinson, Michigan looked to be going under.
“If Hunter was out there and he wasn’t in foul trouble,” Howard said. “Then it would have been a different sort of — you know — our energy would have been a lot different, our disposition would have been a lot different.”
The Wolverines entered the half down by seven, and it appeared they might fall to the 204th-ranked team in the NET. But coming out of the locker room, Dickinson was the impetus to Michigan’s comeback.
“Hunter just calls so much attention,” graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “So him coming back, he made it more open for us to get downhill and shoot wide open threes. … With him on the court, I think we’re a very hard team to beat.”
Just eight minutes in, Dickinson had 12 points and six rebounds in the second half alone. In the brief two-minute and 10-second stint without Dickinson, Nebraska went on a 7-2 run, drawing within one point of the Wolverines.
He was a force that the Cornhuskers simply couldn’t handle — ending the game with 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting, eight rebounds and a perfect 6-for-6 mark from the free throw line. But his stat line only told half of the story. Dickinson’s energy and willingness to take ownership of the offense spurred his teammates down the stretch.
“I’m just being more of a vocal presence out there for my team,” Dickinson said. “That’s something that coach Howard continually tells me (to do).
“… I’m just trying to use my voice more and realize that what I say matters and can help people out there.”
It’s an important step in Dickinson’s development. From the moment he arrived last season, he was capable of making a difference in the box score, his towering 7-foot-1 frame and overall post prowess a boon for Howard and Michigan. But as part of his elevated role within the team, Dickinson needs to be more than just a talented superweapon — he needs to be a leader if the Wolverines are to find any success in the tail end of their season.
On Tuesday night, Dickinson proved that he could be both. When he is, Dickinson isn’t just important to their success — he is their success.
“In the second half, when he was challenged, he stepped up and became that force,” Howard said. “(He) became that best player, became that number one option, became that All-American that is gonna lead his team. And he led us, he put us on his back — and we followed.”