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Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson is Big Ten’s biggest force, on and off the court

MINNEAPOLIS — At last year’s Big Ten media day, Hunter Dickinson spoke as if he was entering his final collegiate season. He’d strongly considered leaving for the NBA after his freshman year, and it only made sense that he’d be even more committed to the idea as he prepared for his sophomore campaign.

Yet there he was on Wednesday, at another Big Ten media day, previewing his junior year at Michigan.

“I guess things changed,” he said.

Dickinson’s presence inside the Target Center loomed large. The 7-foot-1, 260-pound center makes Michigan a Big Ten title contender. He’s the conference’s most powerful force on the court — and away from it, too.

He’s led Michigan in scoring and rebounding the past two seasons and, in a prediction that is the opposite of bold, will do so again this year. Michigan entered the NCAA Tournament with a 17-14 record last season, the last team in the field to avoid a play-in game. Once there, the Wolverines played their best consecutive games of the year to beat Colorado State and Tennessee, before falling to Villanova in the Sweet 16.

In the aftermath, freshman starters Moussa Diabaté and Caleb Houstan bolted for the NBA and the backcourt graduated, leaving Dickinson as the lone returning starter. Michigan added a highly-touted freshman class and two graduate transfers: point guard Jaelin Llewellyn and wing Joey Baker.

Dickinson, per usual, was honest and insightful about what he feels is the difference between that Michigan team and this year’s.

“Last year, I think people on the team would say that we had more talent than this year, from a raw talent perspective,” he said. “But I think this year the pieces fit a lot better. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a lot of talent. (Freshman) Jett Howard, definitely an NBA player. Jaelin and Joey will be high-impact players.

“We brought in a lot of talent, but I think it fits a lot better, and guys play for each other a lot more this year, and it will be a lot more successful season for us.”

Dickinson’s role will look different from last season in a couple of key ways. First, with Diabaté gone, Michigan can deploy more lineups with four shooters surrounding Dickinson. The big man acknowledged that would space the floor better and make it harder for opponents to double-team him.

Second, Dickinson will be asked to lead a relatively young group. He and fellow captains Jace Howard and Terrance Williams II are the only Wolverines with two years of experience in the program.

Dickinson was a sponge as a freshman, soaking up advice from a handful of upperclassmen. He was a leader of sorts last year, but much of those responsibilities fell on Eli Brooks. Dickinson admitted he didn’t realize until this offseason how important his leadership would be to this group.

“It’s beautiful to see how Hunter has grown before my eyes,” head coach Juwan Howard said.

“He’s that guy who knows the culture, knows what the coach is asking, knows the ins and outs of the university and has embraced being a college student. He’s been great at teaching all the new freshmen.”

Dickinson has changed, yes, but he’s still a gregarious, outspoken guy.

During his time with the media on Wednesday, he told a reporter he loved his mustache; he called Michigan’s graduate transfers “super old; I feel like they’re, like, 30;” when asked for another Big Ten player he’d like to play with, he said Illinois’ Terrance Shannon, a transfer from Texas Tech that Michigan pursued, drawing laughs from reporters in the know; and he told BTN he embraces contempt from Michigan’s rivals’ fans: “I enjoy making fun of ‘the little brother’ and Ohio State.”

Dickinson leads the entire Michigan student body in interviews given over the past three years by a wide margin. He said he still finds most of it fun, so long as the questions are fresh.

His words wouldn’t carry much weight if he didn’t produce at an All-American level. It’s his combination of performance and personality that make him such an asset to the Big Ten, and college basketball in general.

Nobody is happier than Howard to have Dickinson back in a Michigan uniform.

“Hey, he can stay as long as he wants, until his eligibility runs out,” Howard said, adding that Dickinson is operating on his own timetable and is in no rush to move on from college.

“He knows what’s best for his future and I enjoy coaching Hunter because of his passion and love for the university. It kind of reminds me of someone I know very well (as far as) how he embraced the University of Michigan and has worn that maize and blue proudly.”

Both Howard (from Chicago) and Dickinson (from the DMV area) came to Michigan from out of state and represented the block ‘M’ as well as anyone.

Dickinson wasn’t ready to give that up. He called this year’s decision to return to school easier than last year’s. Name, image, and likeness money helped — Dickinson made enough to buy a Ford Bronco — but it was much more about the college experience.

Football games at the Big House. Brunch at Jagged Fork with his new pick-and-roll partner, Llewellyn. Soaking up the love on the Michigan campus and the hate most everywhere else.

“I really enjoy being at the University,” Dickinson said, “and I feel like there’s more for me to do here.”

See also: Juwan Howard on Michigan’s NIL progress, Europe trip, and preseason predictions

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