ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The NCAA Tournament hasn’t had a Sweet 16 without Michigan basketball in it since Barack Obama was filling out brackets at the White House, and that streak is now in the hands of a whole new group of Wolverines.
A surprising run to the second weekend of the tournament notwithstanding, last year’s Michigan team fell far short of expectations. With Hunter Dickinson returning and a pair of five-star freshmen in the mix, the Wolverines were widely regarded as one of the top teams in the nation.
But the season ended up being a grind. Michigan was just 7-7 midway through January and clawed its way to an 11-9 record in conference play. A first-game exit in the Big Ten Tournament left Juwan Howard’s team at 17-14 heading into Selection Sunday.
None of that mattered when Michigan knocked off No. 6 seed Colorado State and No. 3 seed Tennessee. It demonstrated once again that deep tournament runs have become the standard for this program.
Four of the team’s top five players (in terms of minutes per game) moved on this offseason, with Eli Brooks and DeVante’ Jones graduating and Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate heading to the NBA. Brandon Johns Jr., Frankie Collins, and Zeb Jackson transferred, leaving only three of the top 10 contributors on the roster.
That trio -- Dickinson, Terrance Williams, and Kobe Bufkin -- will be expected to shoulder a heavy load this year.
Dickinson is one of the top returning players in the nation. He averaged 18.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game as a sophomore while shooting 56.3% from the floor and 32.8% from three-point range.
Here’s the thing: As good as Dickinson has been throughout his career, he can’t be the team’s best three-point shooter, as was the case at times last season.
Williams and Bufkin hope to help in that regard, both in greatly elevated roles.
Williams, a junior, played just 15.1 minutes per game last season and averaged 4.7 points and 2.4 rebounds. He’s a well-rounded player who can occasionally take over as a scorer -- for example, his 17-point outburst at Ohio State helped Michigan get into the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Bufkin went off in Friday’s exhibition game against Ferris State, making 3 of 5 threes, 6 of 8 total shots, and all six free-throw attempts en route to 21 points. The former four-star’s ability to make the leap from fourth man off the bench to top scoring option will determine whether the Wolverines can contend in the Big Ten.
Speaking of the exhibition game, true freshman Jett Howard stole the show with 30 points on 10-of-12 shooting. He might not be a finished product defensively, but Howard sure looks like the sharpshooter Michigan sorely needed a year ago.
Fellow freshman Dug McDaniel also enjoyed a productive (unofficial) debut, scoring 11 points and dishing out six assists as the backup point guard. Size will be a concern, but McDaniel played well defensively, grabbing four steals in 22 minutes.
Michigan’s starter at point guard, Jaelin Llewellyn, made one of three shot attempts while grabbing six defensive rebounds and handing out three assists. Llewellyn averaged over 15 points per game each of the last two seasons at Princeton, but nobody knows how he’ll adjust to the Big Ten.
The point guard spot was often a weakness for the Wolverines last season, and there’s still uncertainty at that position with McDaniel and Llewellyn. Can either stretch the floor as a three-point threat? Will they play better defense than Jones? Juwan Howard is certainly counting on it.
Early depth chart
The starting lineup appears to be Llewellyn, Bufkin, Jett Howard, Williams, and Dickinson. McDaniel is the backup point guard, and true freshman Tarris Reed Jr. played 18 minutes behind Dickinson in the exhibition.
Further down the rotation, there are even more unknowns. Joey Baker transferred in after playing just 11.5 minutes per game across four years at Duke. Isaiah Barnes and Will Tschetter hardly played at all as true freshmen. Talented Lebanon freshman Youssef Khayat committed to Michigan just a few months ago and remains a bit of a mystery.
Will Jace Howard play a more significant role? He’s been buried near the end of the bench his first two years, but earned 14 minutes against Ferris State.
Gregg Glenn was a four-star prospect in this year’s class. Where does he fit in?
Last year’s Wolverines probably had more talent, but Juwan Howard is hoping the pieces fit together a bit better this season.
No. 1 North Carolina, No. 4 Kentucky, and No. 18 Virginia are all on the schedule before Big Ten play, which will present its own unique challenges. Indiana and Illinois might be the class of the league this year, but Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and a few others should also compete.
Michigan has a few weeks to find lineup combinations that work, but these new players will need to mesh by the end of November if they want to put together another NCAA Tournament-worthy resume.
Juwan Howard is an excellent coach who has already led Michigan to a Big Ten championship, a No. 1 seed, a Sweet 16, and an Elite 8. He has his work cut out for him this year, but there’s enough talent on the roster to make another push in March.
The season officially begins Monday night, as Michigan hosts Purdue Fort Wayne at the Crisler Center. The Mastodons went 21-12 last season and shared the Horizon League title with Cleveland State.