The present always seems to mimic the past. Different faces, slight alterations to the same story.
For Michigan basketball, thirty years ago it was the Fab Five. And today, the group is unnamed — for now — but, the expectations are similar. And, yes, it may be premature to make the comparison at this moment, I mean, they haven’t even stepped on the court in a college game yet.
But, isn’t that why everyone is excited?
The tantalizing unknown, the group of guys with untapped potential just waiting to make their debuts. The thoughts of “What if this guy is really that good?”
That’s why the Wolverines are one of the preseason favorites to win it all.
This year they have a solid floor for success. They’re coming off of a Big Ten regular season title — their first in seven years — and an elite eight appearance. Their All-American center, sophomore Hunter Dickinson, returned for a second season, putting off the NBA along with their reliable shooting guard, fifth-year Eli Brooks. And, they brought in transfer point guard Devante’ Jones, who averaged nearly 20 points per game last season at Coastal Carolina.
But, for how high their ceiling is?
Well, that lies on the freshmen.
Out of the six that signed, four were top-50 recruits — including two five-star forwards in Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, who will dictate how far Michigan can go.
Houstan is the only freshman in the starting lineup and the most obvious example. He is the crown jewel of the Wolverines’ 2021 recruiting class and the highest-rated recruit of its millenia. Houstan is expected to provide the Wolverines with the perimeter threat that they so desperately need, helping to fill the sizable gap on the wing — left behind by Isaiah Livers.
Those are hefty expectations to hang on the shoulders of an 18-year-old, but Houstan needs to fill those shoes if Michigan wants to cut the nets down in New Orleans.
But it’s not just Houstan. The Wolverines’ bench will be heavily reliant on freshmen as well, the most exciting of which is Diabate. The 6-foot-11 big man could have the highest ceiling of any of the freshmen and, in turn, will have a major say in how effective the bench can be. He’s been the most highly touted freshman thus far — and seemingly for good reason.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Dickinson said at Michigan media day. “I think he’ll be really good for us this year. He’ll be able to come in and contribute right away.”
If Diabate lives up to his billing, he’ll be a menace on the defensive end, a disruptor who uses his lanky frame to get into passing lanes and stymie offenses. On top of that, he’ll be a proficient post scorer who can stretch the floor with his jumpshot. If one or both of those things come to fruition, the Wolverines would have one of the most dangerous frontcourts in the country.
Then, there’s freshmen guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin, a pair whose development could be the most important among the freshman class. If they aren’t ready for the college game, the backcourt depth falls onto sophomore guard Zeb Jackson and senior guard Adrien Nunez, two players that have not exactly flourished in their time donning the maize and blue.
Collins and Bufkin need to be able to thrive in second-unit minutes if Michigan wants Brooks and Jones to play under 35 minutes a night. It falls on Collins and Bufkin to provide depth in the backcourt — a necessity for a team that wants to compete for championships.
And, while the Wolverines have quite an experienced starting lineup, anchored by the backcourt with a combined seven collegiate seasons of experience, whether or not a team plays into April is dependent on depth.
Just look at last year.
Michigan was a team ranked in the top five nearly all season long, but an injury to forward Isaiah Livers in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament sidelined him for the rest of the season. The next man up was then-junior forward Brandon Johns Jr., who had averaged not even 13 minutes a game leading up to that point. Though Johns played well, the Wolverines could not replace the production of an elite prospect like Livers.
And, the real problem came when the player after Johns came in. The loss of an NBA prospect is never something that can realistically be replaced, but it can certainly be helped if you have a steady rotation larger than seven players. In the end, their season fizzled out in an elite eight loss to UCLA, a game in which they shot 27% from three and failed to reach 50 points. A disappointing end for a team thought to be in the upper tier of college basketball.
That’s obviously something that Michigan wants to avoid this year.
It’s safe to assume that Dickinson will follow up his Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign with a similarly decorated one. The experienced starting backcourt will likely prove to be one of the best in the country. And, with Howard at the helm, there’s a certain expectation of success.
All those are reasons that this Michigan team is destined to be good.
But the talented group of freshmen is why the Wolverines could be great.
They seem to recognize that themselves. At Michigan media day in mid-October, when Collins was asked about a comparison between this year’s class and the Fab Five, he answered with the presence of mind of someone beyond his years.
“I mean, I’m not going to say we’re just as good as the Fab Five,” Collins smiled. “But, we’re really close… and we’re all in the gym all the time.
“It’s going to pay off.”
Will that payoff come this year? Will it come in the form of some new banners hanging from the rafters in Crisler?
That’s a question that won’t have an answer until the end of the season. But, one thing is certain:
Collins and the rest of the freshman class will have something to say about it.