Between the seismic shift stirred by NCAA NIL rules and a wave of all-time coaches stepping away in college basketball, Michigan is about as well-positioned as any program to emerge as a new powerhouse.
That starts with head coach Juwan Howard. From the culture he's built, to his formidable abilities as a recruiter, to the power of the Michigan brand, all the pieces are there.
Originally, Howard's hiring was called a gamble. Now it's the envy of college basketball. He's 42–17 overall in two seasons and 24–13 in the Big Ten. His 2020-21 team navigated the pandemic and emerged with a Big Ten title and a trip to the Elite Eight. An otherwise superb campaign ended with a season-ending injury to star forward Isaiah Livers in March and a stunning loss to UCLA.
While Michigan is replacing four of its top six scorers in Year 3 for Howard, the Wolverines should keep rolling. The Final Four is the goal, and the top recruiting class in college basketball is joining a roster headlined by national Player of the Year candidate Hunter Dickinson and a handful of experienced pieces.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Juwan Howard
2020-21 RECORD (BIG TEN): 23-5 (14-3)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to UCLA 51-49 in the Elite Eight
G Chaundee Brown Jr. (8.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
F Isaiah Livers (13.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
G Mike Smith (9.0 ppg, 5.3 apg)
G Franz Wagner (12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg)
Dickinson is back after averaging 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. The 7'1" center earned second-team All-America honors as a freshman and declared for the NBA Draft, but he opted for another season to expand his game. The common refrain is that he needs to develop his right hand and prove he's a capable 3-point shooter. For Michigan, those would be supplemental bonuses to an already dominant, efficient player.
Backing up Dickinson is Moussa Diabate, a top-15 recruit. A native of Paris, Diabate starred at IMG and measures 6'11" with a 7'3" wingspan. He immediately brings defense and rebounding and has a developing offensive game. The question is if he can play some 4 and operate alongside Dickinson.
Brandon Johns Jr., now a senior, will look to build on a strong close to his 2020-21 season. He averaged 9.4 points and 4.2 rebounds when replacing the injured Livers for the final five games. He's always been physically capable.
Sophomore Terrance Williams II and freshman Will Tschetter offer solid depth at forward. Williams, a 6'7" sparkplug, makes good things happen.
Eli Brooks' decision to utilize his NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility was enormous. The super senior gives Michigan 125 games of experience. He brings continuity. He'll play upwards of 35 minutes a game in a crucial off-ball role, offering shooting and all-conference-caliber defense.
After striking gold with Mike Smith as an up-transfer point guard last year, Howard went at it again with DeVante' Jones from Coastal Carolina. The 2021 Sun Belt Player of the Year arrives with 1,381 career points and 341 assists in 81 games. The 23-year-old is a versatile finisher and shot 37.0 percent on 3s last year.
"Yes, there are going to be some things he has to learn that he probably hasn't been asked to do before, but he's a two-way player who fits what we do," Howard says.
In any other year, incoming freshman guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin, a pair of top-50 recruits, would be penciled in for major minutes. Instead, Howard has the luxury of using them as reserves.
On the wing, all eyes turn to Caleb Houstan. In replacing NBA lottery pick Franz Wagner, Michigan is turning to a highly skilled 6'8" shooter with a limitless ceiling. The McDonald's All-American scored 17.0 ppg in leading Team Canada to a bronze medal in last summer's FIBA U19 World Cup. "He's very mature for his age," Howard says. "He's a professional at the collegiate level."
Isaiah Barnes, another freshman, is a 6'7" athletic wing who can shoot from the outside and score off the bounce.
Michigan has a lot of bodies and an exceedingly high level of talent. There's no question that if they come together as planned, this is a national title contender.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight
Big Ten Prediction: 1