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Juwan Howard’s basketball team just stamped itself a serious contender to repeat as Big Ten champions, and an early favorite for a Final Four spot.

Amazing what a simple “no” can accomplish.

Rising sophomore center Hunter Dickinson delivered the negative seen by Michigan fans as an ecstasy-producing positive. He said not yet to the NBA and the time is now to his Wolverine teammates.

The NBA told him he wouldn’t be a first-rounder. If someone had legitimately given him that hope, Dickinson would have been one-and-done.

Instead, he’s looking at two-and-through — as in, getting through this year’s Elite Eight roadblock and taking the next steps. He relives all too often last spring’s NCAA ouster against UCLA.

The 51-49 loss to the Bruins creeps into his nights. While it alone didn’t drive him back to Michigan, it will light his fuse in an all-out effort to dominate.

Hunter Dickinson insists he hasn't gotten over the loss to UCLA that kept Michigan from the Final Four.
Hunter Dickinson insists he hasn’t gotten over the loss to UCLA that kept Michigan from the Final Four.

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“The UCLA loss is still something I can’t live down to this day,” Dickinson said. “Usually at night is when I start thinking about the game and replaying the key moments in that game. It’s something that I think I’ll never be able to get down.

“For me, to be able to kind of rewrite that loss and have the opportunity to come back, actually have the opportunity to attain our original goal of winning a national championship, it’s obviously something I came back for. I didn’t come back for more personal accolades. I wanted to win as a team this year.”

Howard embraces those words. So do Michigan basketball fans, who heard insider assurances that Dickinson would likely be back, but awaited the official word with anxiety.

In the end, they got everything they wanted — Dickinson, transfer guard DeVante’ Jones also deferring NBA dreams, projected veteran starters in junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. and fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks, along with the nation’s top recruiting class.

Not bad, for a Fourth of July weekend culminating in a Dickinson grand finale.

“That UCLA game, I have to imagine, that is a prime motivation for every player who was on that team last season,” assured Brian Boesch, the voice of the Wolverines for radio broadcasts. “When you get that close…

“For me, it helped a little bit to see UCLA play so well against Gonzaga. So it was like, okay, it was just a slugfest between two good teams and Michigan came out on the wrong end.

“But that doesn’t help the players. They know they could have won that game. They know they could have won the national championship last year.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee of making it back to the Elite Eight, much less winning a national title. Michigan went from one of the most swagger-heavy No. 1 seeds to the No. 1 most likely to be done early with a tweak of Isaiah Livers’ recalcitrant right foot.

Isaiah Livers' foot injury reminded everyone there are no guarantees at tournament time.
Isaiah Livers’ foot injury reminded everyone there are no guarantees at tournament time.

There are no slot reservations. No guarantees. Just a chance, like with everybody else. Well, that last one’s a stretch. Michigan’s stable under Howard makes the vast majority of the everybody elses look lame.

Boesch acknowledges the title talk isn’t unfounded.

“If you keep giving yourselves chances like Michigan did last year with that roster, and it will this year with what we think this roster can be … odds are never in your favor in this thing, but I like Michigan’s more than most,” Boesch said.

Dickinson’s return, obviously, plays a massive role in that sort of confidence. He’ll make the veteran guards, talented freshmen and everyone else better in the quest for a Big Ten title and beyond.

“I’ll put it this way — by retaining Hunter Dickinson, Michigan goes from a top-25 team to a viable national championship contender,” Boesch asserted. “I think Michigan would still be a real factor in the Big Ten and nationally without Hunter Dickinson, but there would be a lot more variants.

“There would be a few games where you would kind of scratch your head and go, ‘Boy, what was that?’ Then you’d have some game where Michigan puts up some remarkable performances.

“Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks, those guys really stabilize things. They don’t have bad games very often. When maybe your two best players don’t have bad games, it’s really difficult to have a complete clunker.”

Howard won’t be sending a clunker down the NCAA highway this year, for sure.

“Hunter Dickinson solidifies this team as being on the short list of being a national championship contender,” Boesch stressed.

In other words, the fireworks in Ann Arbor are just beginning.

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