No. 6 Michigan opens with MAC favorite Buffalo

NCAA Basketball

Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks provide stability to the Michigan basketball team, a notion that reduces stress for head coach Juwan Howard.

The Wolverines enter the season opener on Wednesday ranked No. 6, highest among Big Ten teams. They’ll host Buffalo, a Mid-American Conference heavyweight, in the Wolverines’ latest early-season test.

Dickinson tested the NBA waters after a stellar freshman season but decided to return to school. The 7-foot-1 center averaged 14.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks for a team that won a conference regular-season title and reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.

Brooks, a grad student returning for a fifth season, averaged 9.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season. He shot 39.6 percent from 3-point range and 90.9 at the free throw line.

“Let’s say this: I still have some dark hair left. Dark hair color, I’m speaking of. Because without those two, I’m sure I’d have a lot more grey hair,” Howard said. “That’s because what it does is it just brings more balance and stability to the team when you have two experienced guys, both returning starters, both been battle-tested playing in the Big Ten.”

The Wolverines came agonizingly close to the Final Four, losing to UCLA 51-49. They are one of five Big Ten teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll, with two others just outside the Top 25.

Michigan finished 23-5 last season after being unranked in the early stages of the season. It reached as high as No. 2 in the polls.

Expectations are now ramped up for the program.

“Never have I looked at rankings or predictions,” Howard said. “I don’t know where we were ranked at last year, but I know it wasn’t No. 1. That goes to show you that it doesn’t matter where you are before the season starts. You have to play a game and then you measure where your team is and where you can improve and where there’s areas of if you’re good or not good.”

Michigan has another returning rotation player in forward Brandon Johns Jr. Coastal Carolina transfer DeVante’ Jones is expected to join Brooks in the starting backcourt. Jones averaged 19.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season.

The team’s highest-ranked recruit, wing Caleb Houstan, could replace NBA lottery pick Franz Wagner at small forward.

Michigan will be tested right away by a Bulls team that finished 16-9 last season. They lost to Ohio in the MAC Tournament championship game and fell to Colorado State in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament.

The Bulls are the preseason favorite to win the MAC, led by Jeenathan Williams (17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds per game last season) and Josh Mballa (15.3 ppg, 10.8 rpg). Buffalo has nine seniors or grad students on its roster.

The Bulls tuned up with a 51-point exhibition victory over Medaille.

“I was pleased with the effort and that we were able to get a lot of guys in there without anyone playing heavy minutes,” head coach Jim Whitesell said. “We saw a lot of positives out there, but at the same time we saw a few things we will need to clean up as we get ready for Michigan.”

–Field Level Media

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