Michigan's Hunter Dickinson passes Nebraska's double-team test
It didn’t take long for Hunter Dickinson to get the defensive picture.
On his first post touch in Friday’s holiday game at Nebraska, the freshman center immediately drew a double-team and the Cornhuskers made it clear they weren’t going to give him the same one-on-one opportunities he's had this season.
Yet, the increased defensive attention didn’t fluster or frustrate Dickinson. Instead, he showed off his poise, vision and instincts and used his passing ability to help create open looks for his teammates throughout No. 19 Michigan’s 80-69 victory at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
"Hunter, for a freshman, he's well beyond his years,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “That's because he's a high IQ player. He's a playmaking big. Also, he's a very physical big and he's a talent — let's not forget the part of talent.
“While we watch film, we prepare for the doubles. We knew at times they were either going to come on the catch, or if Hunter were to put the ball on the floor, they would come on the dribble. He went through the checkpoints and his teammates made sure they made themselves available and he made plays delivering the ball on time, on target.”
According to Dickinson, Howard put an emphasis on doubling the post in practice to help him handle what was going to be thrown his way. Coupled with his prior experience against double-teams in high school, Dickinson seemed comfortable making quick decisions and reads out of those situations.
On one play early in the game, Dickinson fired a pass from near the right corner as a second defender collapsed on him to senior guard Eli Brooks on the left wing. Brooks then swung the ball to sophomore wing Franz Wagner in the corner for a clean 3-point attempt that misfired.
On another possession, Dickinson drew a double-team on the left block and threw a left-handed baseline pass to senior guard Chaundee Brown in the right corner. Brown quickly moved the ball over to senior forward Isaiah Livers for an open 3-pointer from the wing that didn’t fall.
"That's a perk of having a post player like that,” Wagner said. “The other team has to double him, and I think Hunter did a good job of finding the open guy and making easy passes that lead to open shots for other guys. It's not easy to do, but we knew that coming in. I think in practice we practiced it enough and think we did a good job of exploiting that when they doubled Hunter.
“I think we have a good balance and mix of inside play and shooters outside. When you've got unselfish players that are willing to pass, I think that's very hard to guard."
While Dickinson finished the game with no assists, he could’ve had one in the first half when he was doubled on the right block and found Livers on the left wing for another open deep ball that missed.
In the second half, he had a hockey assist when he made the same pass to Livers out of another double-team. But on this play, Livers dished it to Wagner along the baseline for a layup as Nebraska was slow to rotate.
“It definitely gives me a lot of confidence when I know that I'm passing out to great shooters because they're really hurting the defense,” said Dickinson, who entered the game as Michigan's leading scorer. “When they double-team, they're trying to take away one thing. But when we hit them with another thing, it really kills their defense.”
As the focal point of Nebraska’s defensive game plan, Dickinson didn’t attempt his first shot until the 5:25 mark of the first half and his first two baskets were a result of dribble-drives and penetration from grad transfer guard Mike Smith.
Dickinson didn’t score his first bucket off a post-up situation until after halftime when he quickly got into his move, taking one dribble and spinning into a left-handed hook shot before a second defender could arrive. He made a similar adjustment later in the second half by spinning away from the double-team and finishing off the glass.
He also provided the dagger with roughly a minute remaining, corralling an offensive rebound and converting a three-point play to cap a 13-point, 15-rebound performance.
However, there were some bumps along the way. Dickinson committed five of Michigan’s 15 turnovers, something Howard noted after the game, and four occurred when he was doubled — a traveling violation, an intercepted pass, a deflected pass and a stripped dribble.
Howard said the team will look at the film to see how they can clean that up. But overall, he was with pleased with what he saw out of Dickinson since it won’t be the last time the 7-footer will be the center of a Big Ten opponent’s attention.
“I admire the fact that he's been growing and getting better game by game,” Howard said. “This is a great teaching moment for him because there's going to be some more teams that we play that's going to double him. But we've got other guys out here on this team that we trust and that he trusts when he makes the pass on time, on target to them that they're going to make the right play for the team.”