Though the Michigan Wolverines are just three games into their season, this stretch consists of 60 percent of the non-conference slate (and 75 percent of the tune-up games). Unsurprisingly, there have been some signs of potential and also some bumps in the road, which should be expected for most teams in 2020, but is also a symptom of putting some new faces in big roles.
Overall, it seems like Michigan is playing about to expectations thus far. After a couple solid wins and one narrow scare, it is clear this team can compete for a top-four spot in the Big Ten standings — even with the impressive depth of the conference right now — but it is also apparent that some things will need to be cleaned up for this to happen.
The biggest factor
Freshman Hunter Dickinson has stolen the headlines with his impressive performances thus far. He is averaging 14.0 points and 7.7 rebounds through three games, and much of his production has come at important times in the game. He already has four blocks in addition to other shots that he impacts with his length, and he is Michigan’s best option at center.
Dominating mid-major competition (that typically lacks the size of Big Ten centers) is one thing, so it will be important to see how Dickinson handles much stiffer competition. However, he came to Ann Arbor as a mature freshman and top-50 recruit, so it should not be too surprising that he is playing well out of the gate. The start to his career reminds me of that of Ignas Brazdeikis, though the two players have much different styles and roles.
Newcomers stepping up
Dickinson is not the only freshman to see some playing time thus far. Both Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams have been part of the 10-man rotation, and especially the latter has shown that he can take up some minutes this season, looking more than capable of hanging with the competition. Meanwhile, Jackson is a little raw but has plenty of promise, and any seasoning he can get this year will be huge for the future.
However, it is really the two transfers that have been the best surprises so far. Both Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown came from situations much different than the one at Michigan right now, and both have jumped right in. Smith is exactly what this team needs at point guard, and his absence against Oakland due to foul trouble completely tanked the offense. He was the entire Columbia team last season, but he has shown that there is no issue fitting him into a different type of puzzle, and adding him was a huge win for the Wolverine backcourt.
Brown burst onto the scene with 19 points against Bowling Green before struggling against Oakland. Right now he is playing a sixth-man type of role, but his athleticism is going to keep him on the court. It might be lazy to compare him to another former transfer, but early results remind me a lot of Charles Matthews. Both players can take over games and clearly have tons of talent, but there will be some frustrating nights as well.
Despite all of these new pieces, there are some things that remain the same for the Wolverines. Isaiah Livers is still this team’s leader, and the senior is averaging 20.0 points a game now that he is back healthy. Unfortunately, Franz Wagner has continued to struggle from deep, starting just 1-of-7, but he still looks like one of the key parts of this roster.
A few other high-level trends to watch: Michigan had stretches last year when it just could not connect from deep, and that looks like it will be the case again. The defense is also better again in the paint than on the wing, and there are unlikely to be a ton of forced turnovers. Finally, when things are clicking this team will have the potential to go toe-to-toe with anyone. Ready or not, the conference schedule will be able to test this theory many times.