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Three ways Michigan will be different after Hunter Dickinson’s departure

The Wolverines will look quite different on both sides of the ball.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of talented players season left the Michigan program this offseason.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the 2023-24 team was the departure of Hunter Dickinson, who unexpectedly entered the portal and transferred to Kansas.

Losing Dickinson is a tough pill to swallow for the immediate future of the Wolverines. He was one of the best centers in recent team history, and his scoring ability was a crutch that Michigan leaned on a lot last season.

Hunter Dickinson is pretty much impossible to replace, but playing without him allows the Wolverines to play in different ways on both sides of the floor.

However, this doesn’t mean the Wolverines will be better this year without Dickinson — his presence in the paint was the main focus for opponents, and the Wolverines will badly miss their leading scorer and rebounder over the last three seasons.

More switchability on defense

Dickinson is a large man who made players drive to the rim, thanks to his 7-foot-1 frame and his 1.8 blocks per game. When looking at advanced stats, Michigan was better in most defensive categories when he was on the floor than when he was off it.

It’s important to note when looking at those stats that lineups without Dickinson often included a lot of bench players. In small samples, those lineups could not stop everyone.

In some ways, the Wolverines could certainly be worse on defense without their star big man. Dickinson didn’t always feel like a dominant rim protector — sometimes he wasn’t quick enough on the help side, and his lack of foot speed made defending outside of the paint difficult for him.

Opposing teams knew this, and would often force Dickinson out of the paint. Opposing bigs would set lots of screens and hover around the perimeter. Michigan could never really switch with Dickinson, as he really couldn’t be trusted to guard non-centers for long stretches of time.

We’ll be seeing a lot more Tarris Reed Jr. this season, as he’s the only player on the roster who solely plays the five. He’ll likely take Hunter’s place in the starting lineup, and perhaps the biggest benefit of that is Michigan will now be able to switch on everything defensively.

We first saw Reed play more than 15 minutes in the overtime loss against Iowa, when he was able to slow down first-round pick Kris Murray. Quite frankly, he was the only Wolverine that could consistently stop him from scoring.

Reed has quick hands and feet on defense, which allows him to survive out on an island with talented ball handlers, and he’s working on getting even quicker this off-season. With all the fours on this roster, forwards who share the floor with Reed like Olivier Nkamhoua and Terrance Williams II should be able to hold their own when switched onto bigs.

The Wolverines lose some rim protection with Dickinson leaving, but they also get a lot more flexible. On top of Michigan being able to switch more frequently, they’ll be able to experiment with more zones with smaller and quicker lineups.

More space for all the power forwards to thrive

Dickinson got better at playing further away from the rim in his last two seasons, especially in the two-big lineup next to Reed. But he was in or around the paint a lot. Dickinson was usually scoring, but his presence sometimes made it hard for power forwards on Michigan’s roster to thrive. Michigan was kind of always forced to play four-out, one-in with Dickinson.

I know what you’re thinking: Tarris Reed plays around the rim a lot, too. Won’t the spacing issues that have plagued Michigan continue with him in the paint?

To that I say, while Reed still needs to work on his outside shot, he doesn’t post up as much, and he’ll likely be used a lot more in the pick-and-roll, opening up space for other forwards on Michigan to play around the rim.

Michigan’s roster is chock-full of guys who can play the four in Nkamhoua, Williams, Will Tschetter and Tray Jackson. While you’d wish that all four were better from three, they may now get more shots around the rim with more space in the paint.

Will any of those four guys be as efficient as Dickinson? Probably not. But more space around the rim in general will help them, and guys who thrive going downhill like Dug McDaniel and Nimari Burnett.

More experimentation with smaller lineups

College basketball — and basketball in general — is getting smaller. Michigan zagged when everyone else zigged with a traditional post player in Dickinson, and especially when Dickinson shared the floor with Reed.

In recent seasons, a lot of teams have experimented with smaller lineups and more five-out looks. We’ve seen smart offensive teams like Alabama, Florida and Northwestern use their lack of size to their advantage.

Michigan could never really try going small with Dickinson, but they certainly can now. This is the time to experiment with lineups: Reed will still play a lot of minutes at the five, but I could see all four of those forwards listed above playing some small-ball center.

Imagine what Michigan can look like running pick-and-pop actions with Tschetter or Williams, or giving Jackson and Nkamhoua more space to operate with the ball off a screen. The Wolverines could also experiment with smaller players at the four in those groups, like Youssef Khayat — who may work best as a small-ball four — or Jace Howard as a defensive stalwart.

As good as Dickinson was in Ann Arbor, Michigan was forced to play a certain style of basketball with him, given his sheer talents in the post.

With Dickinson gone, Michigan has more room to be creative on offense. The best teams adapt their playing style to the rosters around them. And with Michigan’s lack of success last season and all the new faces on the 2023-24 roster, it’s certainly time for the Wolverines to try something different.