Michigan basketball, trying to be sweet again, faces Tennessee’s talented guards, stifling defense
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee forward Josiah-Jordan James happened to pass Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson in a hallway inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Friday afternoon.
James is not a small man himself at 6-foot-6, 214 pounds, but Dickinson made an impression.
“He’s a unit,” James said. “He’s a big dude.”
Dickinson will be at the center of Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second-round matchup between Michigan and Tennessee. But personnel on both sides understand no single player will determine which team advances to the Sweet 16.
Tennessee, a 3 seed, dismantled 14 seed Longwood on Thursday, 88-56. That happened just after 11 seed Michigan rallied in the second half to beat 6 seed Colorado State 75-63.
The Volunteers are 27-7 and entered the NCAA Tournament ranked fifth in the AP poll. Many felt they deserved a 2 seed. They’ve won 13 of their last 14 games, a stark contrast to the Wolverines’ win-loss-win-loss pattern over their past 11.
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Dickinson apparently joked that Michigan should play its student managers before facing Tennessee just to get the loss out of the way.
Saturday will be the Wolverines’ first game against an SEC team since the second round of last year’s Tournament, when they beat LSU. The Volunteers haven’t faced a Big Ten team since the 2019 Tournament, but they did have two common opponents with Michigan this season.
Tennessee beat both North Carolina and Arizona. Michigan lost to both by lopsided margins.
Michigan is a six-point underdog for Saturday’s game, set to tip at 5:15 p.m. and air on CBS. To pull off the upset and reach the program’s fifth straight Sweet 16, Michigan will need to crack Tennessee’s defense, ranked second in the country when adjusted for competition (per kenpom.com).
The Volunteers hold opponents to low shooting percentages and force a lot of turnovers. Their guards are particularly strong defenders and put heavy pressure on the ball. Michigan head coach Juwan Howard noted all the different coverages Tennessee will deploy. Michigan likes ball-screen action but Tennessee is capable of neutralizing some of that by switching many matchups.
The Wolverines, Howard said, can’t get sped up. “We can’t overthink it,” he said. “Just be patient, make simple plays, and not try to make the home-run plays.”
It will help that Michigan should have both point guards available: freshman Frankie Collins, who made his first start against Colorado State, and regular starter DeVante’ Jones.
Jones missed Thursday’s game because he didn’t travel to Indianapolis after suffering a concussion in Monday’s practice. He’s here now, and practiced on Friday, as first reported by MLive. Though Howard called him a “game-time decision,” Jones is expected to play, according to a source.
Tennessee has two impressive, speedy freshmen point guards in starter Kennedy Chandler -- a top-10 recruit who held a Michigan scholarship offer -- and 5-9 Zakai Zeigler. Both are capable 3-point shooters, though neither are as dangerous as starting shooting guard Santiago Vescovi.
The 6-foot-3 junior from Uruguay has attempted a whopping 248 triples this season and made 41 percent of them. By comparison, Michigan’s 3-point attempt leader is Caleb Houstan with 161.
Vescovi is constantly in motion off the ball. Howard went as far as comparing him to former and current NBA sharpshooters Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, J.J. Redick, Duncan Robinson, and Klay Thompson. Vescovi has a deadly shot fake as well that he uses to get even better looks.
Much like Colorado State, Tennessee will have its hands full dealing with Michigan’s size. The 7-foot-1, 260-pound Dickinson is Michigan’s leading scorer and is coming off an efficient 21-point performance. Moussa Diabaté could pose issues as well.
LSU’s coach noted last year that SEC teams simply don’t see size like Dickinson’s in conference. Tennessee is comparing Dickinson to Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe -- a national Player of the Year frontrunner -- and, believe it or not, Florida’s Colin Castleton, a former Wolverine.
Tennesee starts Uros Plavsic at center, a Serbian 7-footer who can match Dickinson’s size, but sixth-year senior John Fulkerson is often the closer at that position. There’s also Jonas Aidoo, whose length is useful when Tennessee plays zone defense. It will be a team effort to slow Dickinson.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said that Dickinson knows where he wants to be on the floor and how to get there. As for the Wolverines’ offense as a whole, he said, “They know exactly what they’re looking for and exactly how they want to play.”
Houstan stepped up with three clutch 3s in the second half against Colorado State, and Eli Brooks’ 16 points were critical.
Michigan desperately wants to avoid a big first-half deficit like it faced against Colorado State. “As crazy as March is, that luck is going to run out if you keep putting yourselves in deep holes in the first half,” Michigan sophomore Jace Howard said. He promised the Wolverines would come out with a greater sense of urgency than Thursday, but Michigan has had a letdown after a win for five weeks running.
If the Wolverines can end that streak they’ll preserve another. They have been to at least the Sweet 16 in every NCAA Tournament since 2017. Only Gonzaga has a longer active streak.
After months of mediocrity -- Michigan is currently 18-14 -- one more win could change the perception of the season.
“It’s the beauty of March,” Jace Howard said. “You can always make your season memorable in March with how well you do. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us, because we feel like we deserve it. We feel like we are good enough to do big things this month. … There is no better time to do that.”
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