After Derrick Walton Jr.’s game-winning 3-point attempt clanked off the front rim against Oregon in the Sweet 16, Michigan coach John Beilein could only express this disappointing loss as a missed opportunity.
No one expected Michigan to catch fire and win the Big Ten Tournament after a near fatal plane crash in Washington D.C. Once they shocked a heavily favored Louisville in the Round of 32, many people expected them to get past Oregon to take on Kansas with a shot at a Final Four.
Losing to Oregon stung, especially since Beilein lost the majority of his starting lineup. Walton, along with guard Zak Irvin, were both seniors and forward D.J. Wilson declared for the NBA draft.
Coming into this season, Beilein still had center Moe Wagner to anchor his offense, but he needed other players to step up and take on bigger roles. Duncan Robinson was a solid role player the previous season, but his main value came in his ability to hit open threes. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews entered the picture, but people were unsure how he would fit in with Beilein’s system.
After a rocky and inconsistent start to the season and Big Ten play, Beilein has his team riding a four-game winning streak, including victories over then-No. 8 Ohio State on senior night and a road victory over an underrated Penn State squad.
Let’s examine why Michigan has stepped up its play of late and whether they can make some noise in the postseason.
The Jack of All Trades
Junior Moe Wagner is the unquestioned best player on this team. What makes Wagner’s playing style unique is his versatility as a big man. Wagner has a devastatingly quick first step, allowing him to take his man, usually the opposing center, off the dribble on the perimeter. However, defenders have to press him since he shoots the 3-ball at a 40.9 percent clip. In the post, Wagner utilizes his quick footwork to knock his defender off balance and get the shot he wants.
This season, Wagner has averaged 14.6 points on 53.4 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds and one steal. In Michigan’s biggest win of the season, an 82-72 upset over then-No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing, Wagner abused Nick Ward all night. He poured in 27 points on 61.5 percent shooting while blocking two shots.
In Michigan’s 72-63 victory at Penn State, Wagner controlled the paint on both ends of the court. He dropped in 18 points while hauling in eight rebounds.
However, Wagner’s aggressive and rambunctious playing style can result in foul trouble. Wagner averages about three personal fouls per game, not a mark that Beilein is thrilled about. Wagner’s undisciplined defense is something that opposing coaches will attempt to capitalize on once the Big Ten Tournament and March Madness begins.
Whatever It Takes
Selfless is probably the word that best describes this Michigan team. Every player is willing to sacrifice his personal stat line to help them win. Aside from Wagner, Michigan lacks a consistent offensive threat. Matthews has averaged 13 points per game this season, but cannot seem to buy a bucket in the past three games, scoring 10, six and zero points respectively.
Matthews, rather than feel sorry for himself, stepped up and worked to find other ways to contribute. In Michigan’s 74-62 senior night win over Ohio State, Matthews only scored six points, but worked the glass and accumulated seven rebounds. He also tried to got his teammates involved and dished out three assists.
Even the freshmen have bought into this selflessness. Jordan Poole has only averaged about 12 minutes and 6.5 points per game this season, but has seen his playing time increase lately. Poole’s newfound offensive aggressiveness has led to him scoring 15 points in 19 minutes against Ohio State and 13 points against Penn State (along with potentially the dunk of the year in college basketball).
Refusal to back dOwn
Most of Beilein’s teams are known for their offensive firepower. However, this team is wired differently. The culture of this Wolverine squad revolves around toughness, audacity and fearlessness.
These traits have translated into a defensive ferocity that Beilein has never seen out of his previous teams. Michigan is ranked 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.
The Wolverines hound their opponents and force them into poor shot selection. Beilein challenged sophomore Zavier Simpson to slow down the red-hot Tony Carr of Penn State, who has five inches of height on Simpson, and he answered with an emphatic performance. Simpson trailed Carr all game, took him out of his element for most of the game and that allowed Michigan to keep Penn State off balance most of the game. Simpson ended the game with three steals in 32 minutes.
In their win over Ohio State, Michigan forced the Buckeyes into 14 total turnovers compared to their seven. It may not show up on the box score, but the Wolverines understand that their hustle and attitude will be the qualities that carry them throughout the postseason.
If Michigan can continue to ride the coattails of their defense and Wagner can remain out of foul trouble, this team has the tools and toughness necessary to shock a lot of people in the next couple of weeks.
Featured image by (Eric Gay/AP Photo).
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