Michigan basketball's freshmen, in search of nickname, already have big roles on team

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As he settled in behind a microphone for what would be a 30-minute news conference as Michigan basketball hosted its annual media day event, coach Juwan Howard identified his team’s most important storyline of the 2021-22 season within his first 10 words.

“What I see from the team is they’re very young,” Howard said, responding to the opening question. “We have six freshmen. We also have four returning sophomores. And then we also have one new grad transfer in DeVonte’ Jones. With this experience and this inexperience — along with Eli Brooks, Brandon Johns, Adrien Nunez — we have a young team that’s excited. They are extremely excited about learning and growing together.”

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An afternoon spent previewing the upcoming season doubled as the official unveiling of Howard’s splendid 2021 recruiting haul, a septet of scholarship players headlined by two five-star prospects in small forward Caleb Houstan and power forward Moussa Diabate and four total players within the top 50 of the 247Sports Composite rankings. Together with Jones, a sought-after graduate transfer from Coastal Carolina who averaged 19.3 points per game last season, the collection of newcomers finished as the No. 2 recruiting class in the country after holding the top spot for much of the year — unseated over the summer when Michigan native Emoni Bates signed with Memphis.

Michigan freshman forward Moussa Diabate is interviewed during media day Oct. 15, 2021 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.
Michigan freshman forward Moussa Diabate is interviewed during media day Oct. 15, 2021 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.

Howard understood how important his freshman class would be after losing five of his top seven scorers from last season — Isaiah Livers (13.1 points per game), Franz Wagner (12.5), Mike Smith (9), Chaundee Brown Jr. (8) and Austin Davis (5.4). Had Brooks (9.5) and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson also chosen to leave (14.1) — the former as a four-year college graduate; the latter as a potential second-round pick in the NBA draft — the Wolverines would have faced a seismic rebuild.

“Without those two I’m sure I would have had more and more gray hair,” Howard said Friday at the Crisler Center. “And that’s because what it does is just bring 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.”

[ Four-star F Jett Howard, Juwan Howard's son, commits to Michigan ]

Brooks, Dickinson and Jones, a three-year starter at Coastal Carolina, will be counted on to anchor a rotation expected to feature significant contributions from members of the lauded freshman class.

After Howard gushed about the collective work ethic of the six scholarship freshmen — “I don’t know who beats who to the gym and who works hardest,” he said — Johns marveled at how advanced the newcomers seem relative to where he stood as a freshman in 2018.

After power forward Terrance Williams II told reporters he’d seen more than enough from the freshmen to feel confident in their ability to produce during games, Dickinson sounded giddy when describing the possibility of playing alongside Moussa in lineups featuring two big men.

Michigan basketball forward Caleb Houstan is interviewed during media day Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.
Michigan basketball forward Caleb Houstan is interviewed during media day Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.

“Honestly, they all have the same type of aspects about them,” Johns said. “They’re all so athletic. They’re super skilled. I think they’re ahead of where I feel like freshmen are supposed to be.”

It’s a sentiment especially applicable to Houstan and Diabate, two players who Jones said have risen to a different level. The smooth-shooting Houstan could play the most important role for a Michigan team in need of threats from beyond the 3-point line without Livers and Wagner. Houstan has been so consistent with his outside shooting, Jones said, that it’s become surprising when he misfires during practice. His presence as a floor spacer for both Dickinson down low and guards looking to drive could land Houstan an immediate spot in the starting lineup.

Diabate is more likely to influence the game on the defensive end, where Howard said he’s capable of guarding all five positions. It makes Diabate invaluable in pick-and-roll situations because he’s just as comfortable defending a guard as he is a post player.

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“Moussa is the only person I know who comes into practice looking for Hunter,” Jones said. “He comes in and just looks for that competition. That’s crazy coming from a freshman like Moussa knowing what Hunter did last year and all the accolades he got. Moussa has been doing a great job just competing on both sides of the floor.”

Michigan basketball center Hunter Dickinson, right, runs a drill with guard Jace Howard during media day Oct. 15, 2021 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.
Michigan basketball center Hunter Dickinson, right, runs a drill with guard Jace Howard during media day Oct. 15, 2021 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.

Off the court, there is an element of inseparability with the freshman class that bodes well for a team looking to develop cohesiveness. Kobe Bufkin, a combo guard, told reporters the six of them get together at night for discussions about their goals and how they think this season will unfold. While point guard Frankie Collins said they dedicate time to discussing their potential legacy relative to one of Michigan’s other elite recruiting classes — the one their coach was part of in 1991.

“The skill set our recruiting class has is just crazy,” Collins said. “I mean, I’m not going to say it’s just as good as the Fab Five, but we’re there. We’re really, like, close.”

All they’re missing is a moniker.

Said Collins: “We definitely need a name for sure.”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball's freshmen steal the show at media day