CHICAGO — Hunter Dickinson is the center of everything for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
He’s not just at the center of the court, where he often patrols the paint on both ends of the floor. Look out into the Wolverines’ huddle during a timeout, and Dickinson will usually be sitting right in the middle of it. Enter Michigan’s post game press room, and the junior center will often be sitting right in the middle of the table.
Because no matter how talented other Wolverines players may be, they all revolve around Dickinson — figure him out, contain him, nullify his impact, and you have Michigan figured out as well.
It took Rutgers time. It wasn’t easy. The Scarlet Knights were bruised and beaten to the tune of 13 points and three blocks in the first half by the Wolverines’ centerpiece. But by the end of their 62-50 loss, as they walked off the floor dejected — their Big Ten Tournament over almost as fast as it started and their NCAA Tournament hopes lost in the wind — it was clear that Rutgers figured it out.
After the domineering first half from Michigan’s star, the Scarlet Knights nullified Dickinson in the second, nullifying his team in the process.
“Hunter Dickinson is a problem for everybody,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said, referencing Dickinson’s strong box score. “… I thought we did a good job on Dickinson, and like, ‘Oh my god.’ ”
Dickinson may not have posted the “Oh my god” numbers Pikiell referred to, but in typical Dickinson fashion, he had a day. Twenty-four points and seven rebounds, at first glance it looks like the Scarlet Knights never figured him out at all.
Early on, it looked like they’d never figure him out.
Dickinson’s 13-point first half came easy from the field. He got to his spots, shrugged off any semblance of extra defensive attention and buried his shots. Defensively, he manhandled Rutgers center Clifford Omoruyi. Omoruyi simply couldn’t get around Dickinson in the post, who avoided fouling and held the Scarlet Knights’ man in the middle to just two first half points.
Figuring out Dickinson is easier said than done. Throwing double teams at him only slows him down so much. He’s faced it all year long, and in the first half that all continued. At one point, four defenders converged on him as he took an entry pass.
It didn’t matter. He emerged with a foul call.
What did matter is that coming off the halftime break, Rutgers started swarming the entry passes into the post themselves. The Scarlet Knights were disrupting Dickinson not just on every touch like the first half, but also before every touch too. And it worked.
He was far less prolific in the second half, limited to only two made field goals. Both of those were from beyond the arc as locking down Dickinson and the paint suddenly became far less confusing.
“I think they were helping a little bit more in the paint, just digging a little bit more,” Dickinson said. “… In the first half I had a little bit more of a one-on-one opportunity, and in the second half they were trying to collapse a little bit more.”
That attention into the post certainly became more apparent as the second half wore on. Omoruyi, for one, enjoyed the extra help.
“My teammates helped me,” Omoruyi said. “You could see he had almost 26 points, so like whenever he got the ball in the post, he’s looking to score. So my teammates tried to double or like help (my) side, so we were able to guard him together.”
Sure, Dickinson wasn’t totally taken out of the game. Despite shooting 2-for-7 from the field in the second half, he did earn four trips to the free throw line. But as Rutgers committed more and more of its resources to stopping him, leaving greater openings elsewhere on the court, the Wolverines weren’t able to counter.
Because today, Dickinson was Michigan. He was the game plan. Everything ran through him.
Once the Scarlet Knights sent rogue third defenders to snatch the ball out of his grasp as he fended off double teams and denied him extra touches, however, they ran the Wolverines out of their own game.
Dickinson is no secret. He’s the center of Michigan’s roster, the spearhead of its game plan, the anchor of the team. He’s a towering 7-foot-1 playmaker that everyone knows is coming. Once Rutgers decided to go all-in on stopping him, stopping the Wolverines dead in their tracks became a whole lot less mysterious and a whole lot easier.
Because, win or lose, Dickinson is at the center of it all.