At first glance, the Michigan men’s basketball team is full of newcomers to March Madness. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson has burst onto the scene in his first collegiate season, while sophomore wing Franz Wagner has transformed into one of the best two-way players in the country. Even graduate guard Mike Smith and senior forward Chaundee Brown Jr. are new faces, having advanced to their first career NCAA Tournament after failing to qualify at Columbia and Wake Forest, respectively, in years prior.
And yet, the Wolverines find themselves just one win away from a Final Four berth, with No. 11 seed UCLA serving as its final impediment.
It’s no surprise that Michigan has performed so well through its first three tournament contests. With the nation’s sixth-ranked offense, per KenPom, the Wolverines are dangerous because any player can shine on any given night. In an era where many programs see their offense centered around one player, Michigan makes sure to remind itself that it’s a team first.
“They play for one another,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Each and every player enjoys each other’s success. If you look at the guys that are not on the floor, they’re really pouring a lot of energy and a lot of life into the guys who are out there competing. … That’s a part of a winning team, and that’s why I’ve just been so fortunate to see the growth in this group, and we will continue to keep growing together.”
While many of the Wolverines’ key pieces are enjoying their first taste of the sport’s biggest stage, two of Howard’s players have already experienced deep runs of their own. Though neither of them saw the court consistently, fifth-year senior center Austin Davis and senior guard Eli Brooks were each a part of the 2018 Michigan squad that lost in the National Championship game to Villanova and the 2019 team that fell in the Sweet Sixteen to eventual runner-up Texas Tech. The pair’s prior experience in March has proven to be a key resource for Michigan’s roster.
“They are an example of what leadership is all about,” Howard said. “I call them givers. What they’ve learned throughout their years being a student-athlete at the University of Michigan — they have been open to serving their teammates in any way, and they’re not afraid to voice their opinion and also teach.”
Added Dickinson: “We have a lot of people who haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament, … for us it’s a great experience and something we’ve looked forward to for our entire lives. For guys like Austin, (Livers), Eli, guys who have been here before, it’s great for us to have those guys to rely on and ask questions.”
The Wolverines’ success this season now has them one win away from their second Final Four berth in four years. With the upstart Bruins standing in their path, many are quick to label Michigan as overwhelming favorites to emerge victorious. Despite the Wolverines’ No. 1 seed, it’s easy to forget that they, too, were once seen as underdogs, being picked to finish toward the middle of the conference standings before the season tipped off.
“For us, especially me, I feel like we’ve been doubted the entire season,” Dickinson said. “Coming into the season, we were picked to probably finish middle of the pack in the Big Ten, we were barely ranked in the Top 25, and now we’re a No. 1 seed in the Elite Eight hoping to get to the Final Four.”
Should it win on Tuesday night, Michigan’s squad will etch its name into the history books. While that event will be a repeat occurrence for some and a first-time experience for others, everyone who dons a Wolverine uniform will play an essential role on the road that leads them there.
“I think everybody on the team has really kind of accepted their roles, and I think that just makes it so much easier,” Dickinson said. “When you know what your role is and what you’re supposed to do on the team it doesn’t really surprise you when someone’s really getting the shine.”