It’s year two of Juwan Howard’s tenure as the head coach of Michigan basketball, and he has them rolling thru Big Ten play. After a solid first season, his team has taken a major step forward in the 2020-21 campaign. The Wolverines are 13-1 overall and in first place in the Big Ten at 8-1. Michigan basketball has climbed to fourth in the nation in the latest AP poll.
As the calendar switches to February, the Wolverines are comfortably in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten title race. They have a two-game lead over Illinois, whom they will host a week from Thursday. The program is currently in the midst of a pause due to COVID-19 protocols. Howard’s team is performing at a high level on both ends of the court. Only two conference opponents have scored more than 70 points–meanwhile, the Wolverines are averaging 76 points a night. All but two of their conference victories have been by double-digits. The consistency with which they have played has been the most impressive aspect of their game.
The new era of college hoops is usually dominated by the youngsters. Michigan basketball is trying the alternate approach this year, with a group of seniors leading the way. Isaiah Livers has just continued to improve each season in Ann Arbor. The 6’7” forward is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and shooting percentage. He is also the man you want to have the ball in close games, as he is shooting 94% from the line the last two seasons. Livers can hurt opposing defenses in multiple ways. He has the size and strength to score inside, but is also hits above 40% on threes for his career. The senior from Kalamazoo, Michigan showed his leadership after a tough loss to Minnesota. He has scored 42 points in the two victories since.
Graduate transfer Mike Smith runs the point for the Wolverines. He leads the Big Ten in assists and has settled nicely into his new role. Smith scored almost 23 points a night during his final season at Columbia, but that’s not what is being asked of him now. Howard is using him as more of a distributor, and he is thriving in that role. Eli Brooks joins him in the backcourt, giving the Wolverines two solid ball handlers to rely on. Chaundee Brown is another transfer (Wake Forest) who provides an offensive punch off the bench. He has five double-digit scoring games.
While Michigan Basketball has a core of seniors leading this team, they also have a star freshman making a big impact. Hunter Dickinson was a top-40 recruit as a high school senior, and he has lived up to the billing so far in Ann Arbor. The 7’1” center is a mammoth kid, and he knows how to use his size and length accordingly. He leads the team in points, rebounds, and blocks. Dickinson is a true post player and is thriving under the tutelage of one of Michigan’s best ever big men. The freshman not only has overpowering size and strength, but he complements those traits with his excellent footwork and hands.
Balance and efficiency have been the keys for Michigan Basketball as they’ve risen to the top of the Big Ten. The combination of a senior core and freshman star is also bolstered by sophomore wing Franz Wagner. The brother of former Wolverine All-American Moritz Wagner adds another inside-out player to go with Livers. The Wolverines have built chemistry and a style that is hard to beat. They also have an advantage in close games because of how good they are from the free throw line. Five different players in the regular rotation hit 80% or better from the stripe.
Michigan can take full control of the Big Ten title race this week as they host second-place Illinois. A win in the next game would give them a three-game lead with only six conference games remaining. Coach Howard’s team is on pace for both the Big Ten title and a very high seed in the NCAA tournament. In a wild season for everyone, the experience this team has will be great to lean on in a year as unpredictable as this. A good blend of veterans and talented youth has Howard’s program trending up in year two. Now they have to continue improving and finish strong.
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