Moritz Wagner steps up as backcourt falters vs. Texas

Andrew Kahn

When was the last time Michigan regularly played through a big man? Maybe in the 2009-10 season, when forward DeShawn Sims was a senior, but that team ran through Manny Harris.

This year, Michigan is starting to realize that it needs to play through its 6’11” center, Moritz Wagner. Forward DJ Wilson has also been critical. John Beilein’s typical guard-oriented approach has not disappeared, but didn’t work at all last night in a 53-50 win over Texas.

“I was thinking about that today of where we are,” John Beilein said as he acknowledged the shift in playing style.  “Rebuilding, retooling, remodeling, re-everything, with Moe’s emergence right now — he’s a long ways away — but it gives us another way to play.”

Michigan’s starting backcourt of Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored a combined 13 points on 19 shots. Meanwhile, Wagner (15 points) and Wilson (13) led the team in scoring and combined for 11 rebounds and four assists. Forward Duncan Robinson added 12 points off the bench.

“I thought Wagner was terrific,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said after the game. “I thought he was the best player on the floor today.”

Praise from opposing coaches has been a running theme for Wagner this season. One lost sleep after seeing on tape how well Wagner had played in a previous game. Another said he could be a pro.

“I thought he was the best player on the floor today.”

Wagner was a point guard when he first started playing basketball, and those skills showed against Texas. He got the vibe that his teammates weren’t attacking offensively, so he did, often catching the ball on the perimeter and driving past his man. He converted 7-of-10 two-point shots. His put-back after an offensive rebound with 20 seconds left was the game-winning basket.

While Wagner couldn’t find his outside shooting touch (0-of-3 from deep to bring his season mark down to 50 percent), Wilson did, burying two corner threes. Both played well on the other end of the floor, too. With Michigan up one in the final seconds, Wilson funneled Texas’ Eric Davis, Jr. towards Wagner, who blocked Davis’ shot.

Beilein said the block, as well as an earlier defensive play by Wagner, would have been fouls on the big man last season, but he’s learning when to leave his feet. A week ago, Wagner found himself on the bench for critical stretches of Michigan’s loss to Virginia Tech because of defensive issues. Now, despite some translation issues in between the coaches and the German-born Wagner in the huddle, Beilein is pleased with his defensive development.

“I was shocked,” Beilein said of Wagner’s defense. “When I wanted to make a defensive substitution at the end and put Mark in for Moe, Billy said ‘No, Moe is really hedging the ball screen well.’ So we stayed with him down the stretch.”

The move paid off as Wagner came through with the winning plays.

“Most of the time I know where I am, but the coaches want me to be somewhere else,” Wagner said with a smile when asked about his defensive court awareness.

The frontcourt play was critical given the guards’ struggles.

Speaking of Walton and Irvin, the senior captains, Beilein said, “They’re so much better than that. Derrick’s trying to shoot over length when he can [instead] drive and find people. Zak, there was nothing about his game except that three-pointer.” It was Irvin’s lone basket on eight shot attempts.

Abdur-Rahkman hasn’t made a field goal the past two games and has cracked double-digits scoring just once in the past five.

“He’s got to be a better player than he’s playing,” Beilein said. “He’s lost a little confidence right now.” Beilein said Abdur-Rahkman can’t let his offense affect his defense. Regardless, Michigan will continue to explore a bigger lineup with Robinson in his place.

Given their inexperience and skill sets, it’s fair to assume players like Wagner and Wilson have more room to grow than the upperclassmen guard trio of Walton, Irvin, and Abdur-Rahkman. The potential is exciting for the bigs; you pretty much know what you’re going to get from the backcourt.

That doesn’t mean the guards can’t give Michigan more than they have much of this season. They almost certainly will. Walton and Irvin are both capable of efficient, 20-point games. For stretches last year, especially late in the season, Abdur-Rahkman was the guy to score off the dribble when Michigan needed a basket.

Michigan is relying on its big men more so than in the recent past. When that’s not, like last night, out of necessity, the Wolverines will become a more dangerous team.

  • David Miller

    I’m curious, is there any data on how often we run the pick and roll with Rahk? The vast majority of the time it is Walton and Irvin running it, but I rarely see Rahk get the same opportunity. I think it’s time that Walton shifts to playing more off the ball to find open spots to spot up and shoot. Spot up shooting is his strength on offense. He does not provide many assists on the pick and roll. Rahk may be able to find more passing lanes given that he is 6’4″. Maybe he could be a poor man’s Darius Morris in that facet? Morris couldn’t really shoot past 17 feet, but he was deadly in the pick and roll game because of his ability to slash and his vision.

    • Fab 5 Legends

      agree with your assessment…Rahk is our best dribble drive player on the perimeter, he size definitely gives us an advantage over a much small Walton…Irvin is easily the most predictable player coming off a pick and roll, looking for his jump shot most of the time lol

      • The problem with running things through Rahkman is a) he can’t make a shot right now b) he rarely looks to pass when he attacks the basket.

        • David Miller

          What does Walton provide off the pick and roll?

          • The numbers say that Michigan scores the highest PPP when Walton runs the PNR. Obviously he played a terrible game yesterday (one of the worst of his career) but MAAR is really struggling with his offense and even he’s on he’s not a passer (13 assists in 9 games).

          • For those curious.. the raw #s (looks like before last night)

            Walton 75 points on 71 poss, Irvin 42 points on 53 poss, MAAR 13 points on 20 poss. Those #s include pass outs.

        • tom48160

          Exactly. It’s not a PNR, it’s a pick-and-whatever because MAAR is taking the shot.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    I said it all year long that we needed to get our big involved much more…this game is a perfect example of what Wagner/Wilson can do. We cannot run our offense through Irvin or Walton unfortunately, they both are seniors and continue showing inconsistency and flaws they have had all 4 years in Michigan…i hope this game shows Beilein that we need our bigs much more involved rather than being a perimeter oriented team who runs through Irvin….I would love to see more FGA for our bigs even if they are having bad games on D…much prefer that over Irvin pull up shot…hope Rahkman & Walton get back in the groove – they were disappointing yesterday

  • ChathaM

    I find it hard to believe that Wagner “misses things here and there” due to any language barrier.

  • malcolm bolt

    Dylan, I didn’t have a chance at watching the press conference, but was Coach Beilein asked about the late game situation having two fouls to use? I’m curious of his reaction and strategy, especially with what happened a few years back with Ben Brust.

    • He said they were planning to foul if they caught anything away from the hoop (on the possession that Wagner got the block). He didn’t discuss the final possession on the FT rebound.

      • malcolm bolt

        Cool, thanks.

  • Jdubb40

    Everybody need just to calm down! Some of you all just love to be negative. They won the game, let’s move on. We said we need to be good for us to go far and it’s happening. On Walton PNR, he have did better this year running the pnr with Moe. Let’s cheer on, big game on Saturday. GOBLUE

  • JJ3ball

    Dylan or anybody, do you think the guards could be struggling because of the way Wagner plays offensively at the 5. Is Wagner doing anything different than Donnal does, or Doyle and Morgan did in previous offenses? Is there an adjustment period we are going through? Seems to me Donnal got a lot of easy shots at the rim last year.
    Irvin was pretty good in PnR last year and I’m not seeing it now.

  • Wayman Britt

    Dan Dakich said something profound last night. He said don’t, as a player, let your first year be your best. A player needs to keep improving and their Senior year should be their best. This made me look back over the 4 year careers of Irvin and Walton.

    I know it’s very early in the season and they have been injured in their career, but both of their first years at UM just might be their best. I can remember all of us just salivating after their first year, thinking about how good they were going to be when they became older.

    • bobohle

      I would tend to agree but in DW’s instance it may have been the total surrounding talent his freshmen year.

      • Wayman Britt

        You are definitely right the surrounding talent helped his game. I just remember against MSU and others on how Walton drove the lane and made baskets in traffic. Haven’t seen that in two years.

        • bobohle

          Can’t argue with that.

        • mikey_mac

          This is the only facet that has declined in Walton’s game; everywhere else he’s improved. The case is similar for Irvin — he’s declined in 3PT%, but improved drastically everywhere else. I mean, come on, man, lighten up.

        • Fab 5 Legends

          completely agree, Walton/Irvin are great role players but I don’t think they are go-to players on a better team. On this team they are because they are Seniors.

    • ChathaM

      That is a good angle from which to view a career. I don’t think it applies at all to Irvin, though. I think he has had a great career, in that he’s maxed out his talent to become a focal point on a pretty good team. In any given game, what percentage of the players who see significant minutes are better athletes than Irvin? 80? 90? His play can frustrate me as much as it can frustrate anyone, but when you consider how athletically gifted Zak is, relative to most of the other guys on the floor, he has done really well.

      • Also… has anyone ever thought about the fact that maybe it doesn’t make sense to make a grade on someone’s career 24 hours after they play one of the worst games of their career?

    • AA7596

      Irvin has been team MVP twice. Not too many guys can say that. His career arc hasn’t gone as hoped, but that’s partly on Michigan for not putting better players around him.

    • A2MIKE

      I actually think Irvin is a much better player now than he was as a freshman. His willingness to shoot that mid-range will come in handy this year.

      I am worried about Walton, but not for the same reasons as everyone else. I think Walton’s issue is all mental. When he drives he is looking to avoid contact, and that is probably a direct cause of his injuries and how they happened. He needs to drive the ball and expect contact.

      Overall, I am with Dylan. If each player were a stock, I would be selling Wagner, because as good as he has looked he still hasn’t played an upperclassmen that can match his size. Buy Irvin and MAAR. Beilein will get them on track, too good of players for this slump to continue.

      I really think this team can compete for the B1G Regular Season, mostly because I don’t see a dominant team, and a favorable schedule for Michigan. Not to mention, they are winning some of these games when 3 of the starting guards are a net negative, that bodes well. Asking Beilein to fix the offense is like asking a world class chef to make pancakes, no worries.

    • Fab 5 Legends

      I agree with your comments, the first year they played there role perfectly, the problem was we all we expecting the same development like Stauskas, Levert, Tim Hardway, Trey Burke etc… but that is not the case – I think Irvin is a great role players, on this team he is our go-to guy even though I would Walton be it out of the 2 seniors

  • robpollard

    Man, MAAR’s play has been such a downer. I expected him, at minimum, to continue to improve — his slashing ability is critical to the team having a chance of making the tourney. Instead, he doesn’t do much of anything — he doesn’t shoot (and when he does, he misses more often than not) and doesn’t pass, and isn’t a good defender.

    His confidence looks shot. Beilein needs to run tons of plays for him against the 3 cupcakes at the end of December and see if he can get on a roll. UM needs him.

    On the plus side, Wagner is a 1st round draft pick in the making — starting next year, if he wants to go. His behind the back move for a left handed layup (which was waved off) was awesome. So fun to watch.

    • mikey_mac

      MAAR’s play has been a downer, but my inclination is this is largely out of his control at the moment, and not nearly as existential as the narratives have suggested in the comments here. UT played great ball-denial defense on the wings in the last game; The bigs are setting some questionable screens for him when he is called upon. To me, he looks very much like the exact same player as last year. As an old junior, this probably shouldn’t be very surprising, but the hope for a jump in performance was real, and just has not been met.

      • robpollard

        Well, that explains Texas, but not the other games.

        He may be an old junior, but as you noted, it is reasonable to think he still could make improvements (e.g., passing) as a 22-year old, but it just hasn’t happened.

        Like I said, hopefully some easier games can get him rolling. I think he might have snuck up people a bit last year, and now that opponents know his game, he needs (with the help of the coaches) to make some tweaks so he can still get to the rim and make some buckets.

        • mikey_mac

          My point is, his offensive struggles may very well be just a cold streak and some poor offensive cohesion early on, especially with MAAR acting as a third option. I should mention, though, I find MAAR’s defensive struggles truly distressing and confounding — seem to be lack of focus/attention/effort.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Hoping for a competitive game @ UCLA, expecting our seniors to step up! Irvin & Walton need to be on their A game for a competitive outcome