Welcome back. The Michigan Wolverines had an incredible 2020-21 season, winning the Big Ten Championship and earning a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament before advancing all the way to the Elite Eight. The expectations are just as high for reigning AP Coach of the Year Juwan Howard in his third season, as the Wolverines begin the year ranked No. 6 in the country, highest in the Big Ten.
Michigan loses a ton of contributors from last season, with Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner, Mike Smith, and Chaundee Brown all leaving Ann Arbor. In their place comes the second-best recruiting class in the nation, led by five stars Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. Guards Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins are top-50 recruits as well, and along with transfer Devante Jones (last season’s Sun Belt Player of the Year), there is no lack of talent on the roster despite all of the departures.
The Wolverines open their non-conference slate by hosting Buffalo on Wednesday. The Bulls finished second in the MAC and lost in the conference tournament final before falling in the first round of the NIT, and experts have them competing for the MAC title again this season. Buffalo starts the season ranked 94th by Kenpom and 80th by Torvik — Michigan sits second and seventh, respectively.
Buffalo Bulls (0-0) vs. No. 6 Michigan Wolverines (0-0)
There are plenty of things to watch in the season opener, starting with the point guard position. Smith came in and looked comfortable right away, distributing the ball well and showing his experience leading the charge. Jones has a different skill set but should contribute in plenty of new ways, such as attacking the rim. The freshman phenom Houstan will certainly be one of the biggest pieces of the offense despite his age as one of the league’s best pure shooters; All-Conference honors of some sort are very realistic.
The Wolverines should also have great presence in the paint. Hunter Dickenson returns as one of the best bigs in the entire country, and an offseason to round out his game should make him even more dominant this season. Diabate is not nearly as polished offensively, but he is going to be a disrupter right away and should get some solid minutes from the start.
Howard loses three starters plus sixth man Brown, so these early games will give a glimpse of how he sees his rotation. Super senior Eli Brooks joins Dickenson as the two biggest returning pillars, and their experience will go a long way in November before the newcomers are up to speed. There are a variety of rotation players that have flirted with minutes over the past couple seasons, and there will certainly be some opportunities for a few of them to step up.
Buffalo is led by the senior trio of Jeenathan Williams, Ronaldo Segu, and Josh Mballa, all of whom averaged over 10 points per game last season, with Mballa adding in 10.8 boards as well. The Bulls’ strength is on the offensive end of the floor, but they will be challenged by the extremely stingy Wolverine defense, which finished last season with the sixth-lowest opponent eFG rate amongst all of Division I.