Michigan eyes national title run in Juwan Howard’s third year


As the snow starts to fall, Michigan basketball enters the season the most hyped up it’s ever been. Led by the reigning coach of the year, Juwan Howard, the Wolverines look to hoist the national championship trophy in April. Michigan is no pretender to success in March, but with the disappointing Elite Eight loss to UCLA last year, Howard comes into his third year with a chip on his shoulder. Michigan lost many key players from last year including Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, and Mike Smith. Before discussing the storylines of the new season, there are some familiar faces in Ann Arbor with some new ones making headlines as well. 

A substantial amount of Michigan’s success came from center Hunter Dickinson. The big man from D.C. averaged 14.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, and 1.4 BPG shooting almost 60% from the field. After a phenomenal freshman season, Dickinson got his feet wet and entered the NBA draft process, but ultimately decided to return for his sophomore season. However, this move might not have been the biggest win for the Wolverines in the off-season. Using his extra year granted by COVID, Eli Brooks returns for his fifth season as a Wolverine; the retainment of Brooks is the most important move for Michigan throughout the offseason.

Brandon Johns Jr. and Zeb Jackson come back as well, both looking to see the floor more than last year. Michigan was still not done, as Juwan brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Two 5-stars, Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, look to see early playing time as freshmen. Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins will also battle for backup guard minutes. The last piece, brought in through the transfer portal, is Devante Jones. Jones looks to be an upgraded version of Mike Smith, with better defense and a more consistent shot. Here are some of my predictions and storylines heading into the 2021-22 season. 

Michigan’s defense could be as good as it was last year

The defense was over-emphasized last year for the Wolverines, which is a good thing. Michigan finished last year with a defensive efficiency rating of 87.9, which ranked fourth in the country. Led by Franz Wagner, Chaundee Brown, and Isaiah Livers, Michigan harassed teams on the defensive end. With all three of those players departing for the NBA, the Wolverines will have to find a few new defensive leaders; one of those guys is Eli Brooks. Brooks guarded the opposing team’s best guard last year, but he needs to elevate his defense if Michigan wants to be top 5. Although he is known for his dominant offensive ability, Hunter Dickinson will be asked to block more shots with the disappearance of Wagner and Livers. Lastly, Michigan will rely upon two freshmen who look to be defensive menaces. Caleb Houstan was Montverde Academies’ leading defender last season, but the college level is an entirely different game. Last but not least, Moussa Diabite can be a player who can guard 2-5 with his long frame and freakish athleticism. This leads me into my second storyline.

Moussa Diabate could be Michigan’s X-factor this year

Just how Eli Brooks was the X-factor for the Wolverines last year, Moussa Diabate has the chance to replenish that role. The freshman from IMG Academy had a huge senior season, which moved him into the five-star category. Standing at 6’11, the proclaimed “shooting guard” is a phenomenal shot-blocker but can also move his feet like a guard. In the exhibition game versus Wayne State, Diabate made his presence known, blocking multiple shots and deflecting a few passes. Defensively, the sky’s the limit for this kid. Diabate is still learning how to use his frame but he had some exciting plays on the offensive end. Whether it was a throwdown dunk or a silky post-move, Diabate has the potential to be an athletic big who dominates down low. With Johns holding down the power forward spot for the start of the season, Diabate will come off the bench. But as seen with Hunter Dickinson last year, Diabate could outplay his expectations and slide into the starting lineup. 

Michigan strolls its way into January 12-0

Similar to Michigan’s start last season, I believe the Wolverines will go undefeated in the first two months of the season; key opponents include Seton Hall, UNLV, Nebraska, and Minnesota. However, none of those games compare to the game on the first day of December; the Wolverines travel to Chapel Hill in the Big 10-ACC challenge to face the North Carolina Tar Heels. A familiar opponent in this challenge, North Carolina, was dismantled the last time they played the Wolverines in 2019. A huge difference in this year’s game is that UNC is without legendary coach Roy Williams. Hubert Williams takes over the talented Tar Heel team that is led by Armando Bacot and Caleb Love. This matchup will be a star-studded game that should be close throughout. Michigan will come away on top in a close one to remain undefeated. 

The Big 10 champion will not be the Michigan Wolverines

After winning its first big 10 regular-season championship since the Trey Burke era, the Michigan Wolverines look to go back-to-back. It won’t be easy, though, as the Big Ten may be the deepest and most talented conference in the country. Michigan’s main competition will be Purdue, Michigan State, Maryland, and Illinois. Last year, Michigan mauled the Big 10 before the last few weeks. That changes this season because the Wolverines don’t have the same experience from last year, which will hinder the success of this season. Even if the Wolverines are the most talented team in the Big 10, I do not see them repeating as champions of the midwest. They will be right at the top of the rankings, though, finishing either second or third in the conference. Michigan might not be crowned the Big 10 regular season champs, but they will be successful in March. The Wolverines will get streaky, specifically in the Big 10 tournament, which I think that they will win. After Howard’s first tournament championship victory, Michigan will be noted as one of the best teams in the country come March Madness time.