He wandered toward mid-court with muscles flexed and head nodding, guttural screams instinctively rolling off his lips. Michigan basketball center Hunter Dickinson had been shoved around by Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn some 48 hours prior, and on Tuesday — against an archrival, with postseason hopes beginning to dwindle — he reveled in the glory of his own brute strength.
Moments earlier, Dickinson held the ball on the left baseline and waited for his teammates to clear the lane. He faced up against Michigan State basketball big man Julius Marble II and drove baseline, circling beneath the hoop and surfacing on the other side for a reverse one-handed slam — plus the foul.
And in the precious seconds between his dunk and the impending free throw, Dickinson roared all the way to the Block M at center court.
“Those aren’t your friends when you’re playing out there,” Dickinson said. “It’s not gonna be like a hug-and-kiss type of game.”
By then, the game was out of reach. An electric first half from Michigan staggered the Spartans barely 10 minutes into the game and produced an 18-point lead from which the visitors never recovered. The Wolverines shot 58% from the field, including 7-for-12 from 3-point range, and blitzed the Spartans in an 87-70 win that repaid coach Tom Izzo’s crew for a similar pummeling in East Lansing five weeks ago.
Dickinson poured in 33 points on 13-for-19 shooting by pummeling MSU in the paint. Small forward Caleb Houstan chipped in 16 points. The Wolverines received 14 much-needed points from their bench.
“We knew last time we played Michigan State, they beat us pretty good,” small forward Terrance Williams II said. “So we were looking for revenge and I think we got it.”
At Crisler Center, in-person support for the Wolverines nosedived this season as coach Juwan Howard’s team plummeted from a top-10 ranking to the middle of the Big Ten pack. Even on Tuesday, one of the most anticipated games on the schedule, there were swaths of empty seats in the upper level and enough Michigan State fans to bellow a “Go green, go white!” chant that reverberated before tipoff.
But those who donned their Michigan garb and came to the arena carried the volume of a sold-out crowd. Emboldened, perhaps, by the in-house antagonists supporting the visitors, the U-M fans in attendance shook the arena with full-throated cheers saluting an incredible first-half performance.
The Wolverines opened the game by making nine of their first 10 shots from the field in an offensive display as scorching as it was balanced. They compiled runs of 14-2 and 8-0 that staggered a Michigan State team devoid of rhythm, saddling the Spartans with a deficit that swelled to 18 late in the half. Six different players scored at least five points in the opening 20 minutes for Michigan, which shot 60.7% from the field and paired effective perimeter scoring (5-for-8 from 3-point range) with potency on the interior (20 points in the paint).
“When I walked up today at 4:30 p.m. and I saw the players’ eyes, I said, ‘We’re good,'” associate head coach Phil Martelli said. “Because I wholeheartedly believe if you want to know what somebody feels, look them dead in the eye. And that’s what I did. So when I took their pulse, I said, ‘Well, game on. Game on.’”
For weeks the U-M coaching staff has pined for larger contributions from the bench, which is usually a glaring weakness for the Wolverines. As recently as Friday, assistant coach Saddi Washington said U-M was searching for “outliers” to supplement the expected scoring of Dickinson, Houstan, Eli Brooks and Devante’ Jones. The response came from Williams and backup point guard Frankie Collins.
Martelli turned to Collins far earlier than normal when Jones picked up two fouls in fewer than three minutes, one of which was the kind of overzealous mistake he made earlier in the season. Collins responded with one of the better stretches of his young career by slicing through the MSU defense to make dump-off passes near the rim. Even when Collins (four assists) was out of control — which happened on more than one occasion — he found ways to smuggle the ball to Dickinson for possession-saving buckets that suggested this might just be Michigan’s night.
Collins demonstrated enough composure to stabilize the offense when Martelli implemented some unusual lineup combinations after Houstan joined Jones in foul trouble. He teamed with fellow guards Kobe Bufkin and Brooks to find Williams for a trio of 3-pointers that gave the crowd another jolt.
“The three 3s were huge for us,” Dickinson said. “Any time you can open up that defense, they’re heavy in their gaps so we know our shooters in the corners are going to have some open looks. T-Will took advantage of that and made them pay.”
The Wolverines protected their 16-point halftime lead by feeding Dickinson in the post. Time and again he lowered his shoulder against Marble, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko to force his way under the rim for high-percentage layups. He scored 21 of his 33 points in the second half and nearly all of them looked easy — a fact Dickinson shared with Izzo and the MSU bench. (Dickinson was eventually warned by the referees to stop yelling at the Spartans’ sideline.)
But there was nothing Michigan State could do to stop him, not on this night as the Wolverines scrapped to keep their season alive. Dickinson finished the job by swooping across the lane and dunking the Spartans into submission.
“If it does not work out for him in basketball,” Martelli said, “I dare any of you to deny me this fact: He will be a WWE villain. He won’t be a good guy, but he’ll be a villain. He will sell a lot of tickets for WWE.”