The Wolverine

February 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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FEBRUARY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 33 BY CHRIS BALAS M any pundits pointed to year two of the Juwan Howard era as a potential telling season in his budding head coaching career. "How much has he learned?" they wondered aloud, "and how would he do without leaders like Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske?" To say he'd exceeded all expecta- tions at the season's midway point would be an understatement. With several pieces remaining from the John Beilein era and building on the former coach's principles while adding plenty of his own, Howard had built his team into the Big Ten favorite with 11 games remaining. He replaced point guard Simpson with Columbia graduate transfer Mike Smith, Teske with freshman center Hunter Dickinson and added Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown as a critical sixth man. The result? Michigan stood No. 4 in the As- sociated Press rankings and No. 3 in the rankings, which sort based on advanced metrics, as of Jan. 26. The Wolverines were sev- enth in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency, described as the estimate of the offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) a team would have against the average D-I defense, and even better (fifth) in ad- justed defensive efficiency in proving their worth as an outstanding two- way unit nearing February. S o m e o n e o n c e s a i d a b o u t a song: "I've found that a hit record is like a stew. All the ingredients have to come together just right. Oth- erwise, it's just soup." The same could be said for a bas- ketball team. Talent is one big com- ponent, of course. Some would argue chemistry is the biggest, though, and this team has it in spades. "How well we get along and the en- ergy in the locker room," senior guard Eli Brooks said when asked what im- pressed him most about this year 's squad. "We all cheer for each other, and there's so much energy on the bench from everybody. How connected we are is excellent, and that's one of the reasons we're doing so well." Another — everyone has bought into the mission that team goals are bigger than individual aims, and they're always willing to make the extra pass or pick up a teammate when he's down. Dickinson led U-M as of Jan. 26 with 15.1 points per game, followed by senior forward Isaiah Livers' 14.6 and then sophomore guard Franz Wagner's 12.0, but six different play- ers had led the team in scoring in their 14 games on the way to a 13-1 record. Opponents can take away one scorer, and there have been more nights during the last few games when Dickinson has been their focus. He averaged only eight points in his last four outings, yet three of them were blowout victories over Wiscon- sin, Maryland and Purdue. But they can't stop them all, and that's been the difference. "The way it's a different guy each night is what impresses me most," Livers said after U-M's 70-53 road blowout of the Boilermakers Jan. 22. "It was Franz and Hunter against Maryland, and then a well-rounded win at Nebraska before that. "You never know who it's going to be. We have it going right now, and it's all about giving to the team. It's beautiful how unselfish we are — we don't hold the ball and don't mind swinging it to others because we know they'll make the right decision." And more often than not, they have. DEFENSE IS THE DIFFERENCE The biggest difference between Howard's first Michigan team and his second, however, is the defense. It's been compared to the old Soviet hockey teams in its relentless pursuit, rarely giving teams room to move and often breaking their will. Beilein, now a Big Ten Network an- alyst, was blown away while watch- ing the Wolverines smother Wiscon- sin in a 77-54 win Jan. 12. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson led the Wolverines in scoring as of Jan. 25 with an average of 15.1 points per game. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL Senior forward Isaiah Livers had helped Michigan reach No. 4 in the Associated Press and coaches' rankings as of Jan. 26. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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