ANN ARBOR, Michigan – Michigan coaches may try to downplay it. You can emphasize the team component of Thursday’s game between No. 3 Michigan and No. 9 Iowa, and you won’t be wrong; The team that wins will care much more about winning than the individual player statistics.
But Thursday’s showdown between the Hawkeyes and the Wolverines will also be undeniably personal, pitting Luka Garza against Hunter Dickinson. The two have known each other for six years as they both trained with the Team Takeover AAU team based in the Washington, DC area. Although they were three degrees apart, their height (6ft 11 for Garza, 7ft 1 for Dickinson) brought them closer. Last spring, when COVID-19 restrictions limited Garza’s workouts as he reflected on an NBA Draft decision, Dickinson accepted the challenge to face it.
Now Garza, the presumed national player of the year, and Dickinson, arguably the best freshman in the nation, will go head-to-head again. Except this time, there are implications for the Big Ten title and the NCAA Tournament at stake.
“I’ve known him for a while,” Garza told reporters Tuesday. “We have always worked together and we have fought. And I played in practice and things like that. It’s really impressive to see what he’s done so far, I think anyone at DMV would have told you that would happen. It’s been very elitist for a while. “
When the two trained last spring, various accounts confirmed that battles weren’t usually close. According to Frank Garza, Luka’s father, Dickinson won just one game against the player who now leads the country with 24.7 points per game. Garza had thousands of minutes and college points under his belt; Dickinson wasn’t even finished with high school.
Still, it was clear that Dickinson was on his way. A top 50 pick and a Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year while playing for No. 5 DeMatha Catholic, Dickinson’s game was known in the region and country, and he didn’t back down when a consensus college All-American called him.
“He had that look in his eyes that he wanted to improve,” Frank Garza said of Dickinson last summer. “It takes a special kind of character to want to take on the best and improve, even if you’re embarrassed.”
Now, Dickinson is also a different player than he was then. Since the spring, the former top 50 pick has undergone a summer of weightlifting and training with renowned Michigan strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, a former great man himself. He has also been mentored by Michigan head coach Juwan Howard, who played 19 years in the NBA as a great. Following Dickinson’s 22-point, nine-rebound performance against No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday, it was revealed that Howard has routinely held one-on-one movie sessions with Dickinson the night before several games this season.
And along the way, Dickinson has led the Wolverines with 15.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He has won the week’s seventh freshman Big Ten award, tied for second all-time, ranks seventh nationally in field goal percentage and twelfth in player efficiency rating.
“He really wasn’t used to the college game,” Dickinson said of his previous meetings with Garza. “After having a bit of summer preseason and then the actual preseason and since the season started, I think I’ve learned a lot. Especially thanks to Austin Davis. He really gave me a great example of what the Big Ten is and what I need to do daily to prepare for guys like Luka coming in and out of the game.
“I think I’ve grown a lot since then with my basketball skills, but also with my mind and things like that.”
Of course, Dickinson has yet to face a great man in the Garza stratosphere this season. Astute with his post moves, physical in his ability to get to the line, and even having made 44.4 percent of his 3s in 72 attempts, Garza’s scoring ability is as good as anyone in the Big Ten in the last 20 years.
Dickinson knows firsthand how difficult a showdown with Garza would be. Admitting that he is still learning a lot while watching movies and that he is still far from being an “expert” on Garza, Dickinson may still have the right to know Iowa’s big game better than anyone in the Big Ten.
“I think one thing he does really well is use his body,” Dickinson said when asked what makes Garza dangerous. “He’s got a great frame that throws really well. He’s really good at using angles. If you give him some kind of angle to get him off the board or something like that, it’s really good. Whatever the defender does is wrong. “.
Martelli added: “How hard he works, how creative he is with his footwork, and both games, to me, were unusual for college basketball. “
Martelli is right when he says Thursday is about Michigan vs. Iowa. The Wolverines are in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten, with a 97.88 percent chance of winning the regular-season title and claiming the title as early as Saturday. The last time Garza arrived in Ann Arbor, he scored 44 points, an opponent’s record, and the Hawkeyes still lost by 12 points.
Garza could do the same on Thursday, and Dickinson won’t mind as long as Michigan wins. There’s also something to be said for not getting too emotionally involved in a personal showdown, especially against arguably the best player in the country. For what it’s worth, Dickinson said he feels like he’s played with his friends enough that it’s not a problem.
“The only thing I’m going to whisper to (Dickinson) tomorrow is that you have to put friendship aside,” Martelli said. And you are not the young man. You can’t go in and accept that as a built-in excuse. All the notoriety, all the accolades, he’s handled it. And now he has to handle the idea that this is not Hunter versus Garza, this is Michigan versus Iowa. “
Still, the showdown will be between longtime friends and former practice enemies, and it’ll be a juicy subplot for the top 10 showdown. The nation’s best hub and the nation’s fastest growing hub will go head-to-head, as a major top-10 showdown unfolds around them.
It doesn’t get much bigger than that.
(Top photo: Marc Gregor Campredon, MGoBlog.com)