Michigan

Wolverines

Season Record19-3

Player to WatchFranz Wagner

Key PlayersMike Smith, Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson, Chaundee Brown Jr.

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Intro

Under second-year coach Juwan Howard, the Michigan Wolverines entered this season with more questions than answers following the graduation of Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske — the two winningest players in program history. It didn’t take long for the Wolverines to silence doubters, however, as they raced out to an 11-0 start and a 6-0 mark in Big Ten play. The addition of transfers Chaundee Brown (Wake Forest) and Mike Smith (Columbia) played a major role in that success, as both players sacrificed personal scoring and minutes to contribute to a winning team for the first time in their respective careers. It didn’t take long for 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson to rise to stardom, and he showed off his elite low-post game by scoring in double figures during each of his first 11 college games. A well-balanced offense, coupled with a defense that has steadily improved throughout the season, is what the Wolverines hope will carry them to their second Final Four in the last four years.

Player to Watch

If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because former Michigan forward Moe Wagner — Franz’s older brother — carried the Wolverines to the 2018 national title game. If you’ve watched Michigan this year, it doesn’t take long to notice that the younger Wagner also has an elite offensive skill set. The 6-foot-10 sophomore can score at all three levels, and his ball-handling has come a long way since last season. He spent the offseason quarantine training with Moe in Washington, D.C., and returned to Ann Arbor 20 pounds stronger. But the defensive end of the court is where Wagner has established himself as an elite wing this season. His improved lateral quickness has made him one of the Big Ten’s best on-ball defenders, and he uses his long frame to contest shots around the rim and jump into passing lanes. After spending most of his freshman season as a spot-up 3-point shooting threat, Wagner has transformed his game at both ends of the floor to become arguably the most well-rounded player in the Big Ten, and NBA Draft boards are beginning to recognize that.

Case for Team

You’d be hard-pressed to find a team as balanced as the Wolverines on the offensive end in this year’s NCAA Tournament field. But what makes Michigan different is the way it uses that balance to its advantage. When opposing teams began the season with defensive gameplans built around stopping Isaiah Livers and Wagner, Dickinson made them pay in the low post. And when teams started double-teaming Dickinson, the Wolverines’ offense kept humming as he kicked out to lights-out shooters for open 3-pointers. From top to bottom, Michigan’s lineup has emerged as the Big Ten’s most well-rounded group. Any one of the Wolverines’ starters can go for 20-plus points on any given night based on what the defense gives, and that’s something Michigan has embraced as part of its offensive identity. Whereas players on some teams focus on their individual production and role, a sense of selflessness, buy-in and trust has come to define this Michigan team — characteristics capable of sparking a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Case Against Team

While having a strong sense of balance is generally a positive, it has left the Wolverines without a defined No. 1 offensive option. Wagner, Livers and Dickinson are all viable candidates, but none of them have emerged as a hands-down go-to type of guy. Livers seems like the most likely candidate, as he’s a senior and has NCAA Tournament experience from Michigan’s 2018 Final Four run. But so far this season, the Wolverines haven’t had much experience in close games, as they won 12 of their first 14 contests by double digits. If they find themselves in a tight postseason game down the stretch, it’s unclear whose hands the ball will be in.