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St. John’s men’s basketball opponent preview: Michigan

The Red Storm draw the Wolverines in a marquee Gavitt Games matchup under the Garden lights

Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard talking to Dug McDaniel Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks at Rumble in the Garden, we will preview every non-conference opponent on the St. John’s men’s basketball schedule for 2023-24. Our next installment of this series focuses on the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten conference.

Game #2: Michigan (Monday, November 13th)

2022-23 Results: 18-16 (11-9 in Big Ten), lost to Vanderbilt in second round of NIT

Key returners: Dug McDaniel (8.6 ppg), Jaelin Llewellyn (7.0 ppg), Terrance Williams (6.1 ppg), Tarris Reed Jr. (3.4 ppg)

Key departures: Hunter Dickinson (18.5 ppg last season, transferred to Kansas), Jett Howard (14.2 ppg, NBA draft), Kobe Bufkin (14.0 ppg, NBA draft), Joey Baker (5.7 ppg, graduated)

Key newcomers: Olivier Nkamhoua (10.8 ppg at Tennessee), Nimari Burnett (5.6 ppg at Alabama), Tray Jackson (6.5 ppg at Seton Hall), George Washington III (138th-ranked prospect in 247Sports’ 2023 class)

Trivia: The Wolverines have an all-time record of 25-11 at Madison Square Garden

A trip to Madison Square Garden on Monday, November 13th has been penciled on the agendas for many since the Gavitt Games clash was announced earlier this summer. The first “big” game of the Rick Pitino era sees St. John’s face the Michigan Wolverines in the World’s Most Famous Arena, a golden opportunity for the Red Storm to begin restoring credibility with lapsed fans and alumni who have long waited for a nationally credible basketball program.

Albeit a comparatively brief departure from expectations, their Big Ten guests on that night are also seeking to reclaim their big-time reputation. The Wolverines are coming off their first missed NCAA tournament bid since 2016 (excluding the canceled 2020 tournament), despite the squad featuring talents like All-American Hunter Dickinson and All-Big Ten players Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard.

The coach: Juwan Howard

5th season overall (all at Michigan)

79-48 career record, two NCAA appearances (one Elite Eight and one Sweet 16), one Big Ten regular season title (2020-21)

Two years ago, beloved Fab Five member Juwan Howard was leading his alma mater to the Elite Eight as a 1-seed. The memorable campaign netted Howard the Associated Press’s Coach of the Year award and he appeared on track to become one of the best coaches in college basketball. Now after two straight underwhelming regular season performances, Howard is at risk of going on the hot seat if Michigan tailspins in disappointing fashion again.

After barely squeaking into the Big Dance in 2022 and managing to reach the Sweet 16 of a tournament they probably should not have made in the first place, they were not so lucky last season. Head-scratching inconsistency, a lack of player development for returning players, and a failure to protect double-digit leads in several games doomed a potentially exciting 2023 for the Maize and Blue. As a result, questions began emerging about Juwan Howard’s ability to lead the program.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard walks off the court after a 62-50 Big Ten tournament loss against Rutgers last March
Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The early stages of the offseason only intensified concerns about Howard’s performance. Dickinson transferred to Kansas, 2023 center prospect Papa Kante de-committed in April, Bufkin and Howard were both drafted in the first round of the NBA draft, and former North Carolina guard Caleb Love was a Wolverine for all of one month before an admissions issue sent him back into the transfer portal to eventually land at Arizona.

Now a few months separated from a brutal start to the offseason, Juwan Howard has done a great job of silencing those concerns for the time being. He netted a trio of pliable portal additions and just brought in a very underrated international prospect. Like the past two seasons, the talent is undeniable, but can Howard twist the right cogs and become the same coach that won AP Coach of the Year two years ago again?

The players

The roster is still under construction at the time of publishing this post, with one scholarship spot remaining to be filled. On Saturday afternoon, Argentinian center and 2023 FIBA U-19 World Cup standout Lee Aaliya committed to Michigan, providing upside and depth to a burgeoning Wolverine frontcourt unit.

As the returning top scorer from last season, Dug McDaniel (8.6 ppg) is a smart pick to break out into national stardom if he can make the coveted sophomore leap. The former four-star guard made significant strides at the tail end of last season, averaging 13.8 points per game on good efficiency in the final eight games of his freshman year.

McDaniel isn’t alone as a returnee. Joining him is fellow DMV area product Terrance Williams II. Last season’s jump into the starting lineup went inauspiciously for the 6-foot-7 wing, as Williams saw his shooting efficiency slide from 45 percent to 38 percent. Sophomore big man Tarris Reed Jr. (3.4 ppg) is expected to be the day-one starting center after an impressive freshman year. It remains to be seen if Reed can fill the gargantuan shoes left by Hunter Dickinson, but the potential exists for the former top-70 recruit. Former All-Ivy League guard Jaelin Llewellyn (7.0 ppg) is poised for a bounce-back year after a torn ACL ended his debut year with the Wolverines after eight games and stretch four Will Tschetter (2.3 ppg) has a lot of ground to make up in the frontcourt depth chart.

The three transfer portal additions each bring their unique flair to the squad. Tennessee transfer and human sledgehammer Olivier Nkamhoua (10.8 ppg) carries a rare combination of size, length, and playmaking ability to form a spine-tingling frontcourt pairing with Tarris Reed Jr. Here’s Nkamhoua quickly erasing someone by the name of Josh Giddey at the basket in a FIBA World Cup game this past weekend. No big deal, really.

Alabama transfer Nimari Burnett (5.6 ppg) is joined alongside them as an intriguing reclamation project. The former McDonald’s All-American has been unable to string together offensive consistency in either of his two stops at Texas Tech and Alabama, but he has displayed the ability to become a premier perimeter defender with his 6-foot-6 frame. Burnett graduated from Alabama earlier this month, meaning he will be immediately eligible at Michigan.

A familiar face that Red Storm fans should recognize also joins Juwan Howard’s team. Former Seton Hall forward Tray Jackson has moved to Ann Arbor for his grad transfer season and he projects as a solid in-and-out bench option. In four career games against the Johnnies, Jackson averaged 5.5 points per game on 58 percent shooting.

New to the backcourt, four-star freshman George Washington III (no relation to our Founding Father) was a ready-and-willing three-point threat who flashed serious NBA range in high school. Last November, Washington pulled a Benedict Arnold by flipping his commitment from Ohio State to Michigan. He will likely shadow McDaniel as the first guard off the bench at the start of the season.

Forecasting the game

Michigan is a pedestrian 12-11 in non-conference play these past two seasons, and their roster attrition initially made it difficult to remain optimistic of their postseason chances heading into this season, but Juwan Howard’s steady re-development of his squad as the offseason progressed should create a pretty evenly-matched matchup in terms of talent and produce a game that will be one of the highlights of this upcoming college basketball season.

Jordan Dingle and Dug McDaniel will battle to outduel each other in the scoring column, the frontcourt matchup of Reed Jr. and Nkamhoua versus Soriano and Ledlum will leave plenty of bruises, and the spectacle of Rick Pitino’s first game as St. John’s head coach under the Garden limelight is worth the price of admission alone. With little separating the teams in terms of talent, coaching will be the deciding factor in this game and it favors the Hall of Fame head coach. St. John’s wins by three.