The UCF Knights will play arguably the biggest non-conference home game in program history Thursday as they host one of the most recognizable college basketball programs in the county, the Michigan Wolverines.
Last season, Michigan won 80-58 over UCF. Hunter Dickinson led the way with 14 points and 7 rebounds, and the Knights will have to deal with him once again on Thursday.
I caught up with Maize N’ Brew’s Dan Plocher to get to know Michigan and figure out what to expect in the game.
Eric Lopez, Black & Gold Banneret: There were high expectations coming into the year for the Wolverines after winning the Big Ten regular season title, making it to Sweet 16 and being ranked preseason top 10. Currently they’re at 7-4 and unranked. What has been the issue with the Wolverines this season, and how much have they missed Franz Wagner, who is with Orlando Magic, and Isaiah Livers?
Dan Plocher, Maize n Brew: Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner have certainly been missed, but they aren’t the only ones. Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown were two other key contributors who moved on to the next level. Without three starters from last season, the Michigan offense has really struggled to find its groove.
They have a surplus of talent and prospects from their Top-3 recruiting class in the country, and a transfer point guard in Devante Jones who was the Sun Belt Player of the Year a season ago with Coastal Carolina. But, no one has really taken the reigns of the offense and slowed things down.
The last two seasons, Michigan had Zavier Simpson and Mike Smith as a head coach on the court. Jones is getting there, but has not achieved that level, yet. If they can figure things out, they will be a dangerous team once again.
E-Lo: Who are the Wolverine players UCF fans need to watch out for in the game?
Dan: The players to watch for are the two big men: Hunter Dickinson and Moussa Diabate.
Dickinson is an animal and is showing significant improvement in his sophomore season. The 7-1 big man is who the offense turns to when things aren’t cooking, and he has shown the ability to start shooting the ball from range — something that wasn’t in his repertoire as a freshman.
Meanwhile, Diabate has come on really strong in Ann Arbor. He is the lightning bug for this team, blocking shots, throwing down some massive dunks, and showing the energy every moment he is on the court. The 5-star freshman is playing like one early in the season.
E-Lo: Describe Michigan’s defense and what they depend on to be successful.
Dan: Michigan’s defense is multiple sets. They usually start man-to-man with a lot of help defense from the big men when guards drive into the post. They also have a few zones they throw in (3-2 and 2-3) throughout the course of a game. They’ll stay in it longer if it is working, but for the most part, it’s man-up. The team relies on communication, switching on screens, and plenty of help defense from the guys on the interior.
BGB: What has been like having Juwan Howard back at Michigan as he enters his third season as head coach ?
Dan: Juwan Howard is already a legend at Michigan, so him coming back to coach the team has been a dream come true. He has excelled at recruiting and kept significant talent into Ann Arbor. Howard has done that by making Michigan basketball cool again.
The Fab Five had a lot of swagger and a touch of that is back with Howard returning to campus. Every player talks about how much he cares about them as a person, not just a player. He seems like a great person on top of being a phenomenal recruiter and coach. He just inked an extension through 2025-26 and Wolverines fans couldn’t be more excited about what the future holds with him being in Ann Arbor.
E-Lo: This is big week in Michigan athletics with football down south playing against Georgia Friday, which really works out that hoops is in Orlando. What do you think is the key to game at UCF, and will Wolverine come in droves in Orlando, or is the focus all on football?
Dan: I would imagine some fans will try and double-dip in Orlando, but don’t be fooled — this is still a football school. The focus is on the College Football Playoff and prepping for that.
Michigan hasn’t played in 12 days because of COVID issues with other programs. They will need to start hot against a good UCF team and stay consistent on the offensive end throughout the course of the game, especially from behind the arc. They are currently the worst free throw shooting team in the Big Ten and that will have to change before getting in to a brutal Big Ten conference schedule.
Tip-off between UCF and Michigan will be at 7 p.m. on Thursday on ESPN2 with Rich Hollenberg and Jon Crispin on the call.