At one point during a somewhat zany practice on Thursday, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein was doing push-ups with assistant coaches LaVall Jordan and Jeff Meyer at centercourt. At another point, a mock wrestling belt with a big block 'M' emblazoned on it was handed over to junior forward Sean Lonergan, who “won practice” the day before.
The season hasn’t started yet, but excitement for the upcoming year is already showing up on the practice court. After Thursday’s practice concluded, the Michigan men’s basketball team hit the halfway point in its allotted 30 days of preparation for the regular season. Halfway in, the Wolverines have more answers than they did 15 days ago, but plenty of work remains ahead of them.
MO SMILES: Though Moritz Wagner is just 18 years old, there has been a lot of talk surrounding the forward from Berlin, Germany. During the Wolverines’ open practice on Thursday, the freshman bounded up and down the court with a grin on his face.
“We just love coaching that kid so much and the teammates love him,” Beilein said. “Especially for a kid who’s 18 years old and from a foreign country, learning the English language on the fly. I can’t think of a better transition so far.”
His progress as a college student in a foreign country has been incredible, but he’s still in transition on the court.
At times, he shows flashes of athleticism. Other times, he looks downright awkward. Beilein is still impressed, mentioning that he unexpectedly denied senior guard Caris LeVert the ball in practice, but later explained to his coach that it would have been a bad mismatch for LeVert. According to Beilein, that type of two-steps ahead thinking showedcased Wagner’s impressive basketball IQ.
“We’re trying to teach him two positions,” Beilein said. “At 6-foot-10 and a half, he can play inside or he can play in the middle. (He) just hasn’t shown that physical ability to rebound yet. He will. He’s really a talented young man.”
WEIGHT WATCHERS: It’s impossible to note the advances Michigan has made in the offseason without mentioning weight gain and lean muscle mass. Most of the Wolverines stayed in Ann Arbor over the summer to train, so it’s no surprise that some players have put on 20 pounds of muscle.
For Wagner, the adjustment to American food and weight lifting made an impact right away. He made the jump from 211 to 228 pounds over the course of three months.
“Sandman (strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson) really got (Wagner) on a good program gaining weight,” said freshman Brent Hibbitts, Wagner’s roommate. “He hadn’t really lifted much back in Europe, so once he started here and got a hang of all the lifts, he really saw improvements.”
Beilein has noticed gains on both sides of the ball for sophomore forward D.J. Wilson, but his growth is affecting his play as well.
“He’s 235 (pounds) now, and he’s trying to play at 235 instead of trying to play like he’s still 190,” Beilein said. “When you grow up that long and you’re 170, 180, 190, and all of a sudden you’re 235, there’s some habits you have that he’s trying to change so he can use that hard work he’s done for a year in the weight room.”
Fellow sophomore forward Ricky Doyle hasn’t put on quite as much weight, but he has readjusted his muscle mass.
“He came in country strong,” Beilein said. “He didn’t lift a lot of weights, but he was still strong walking in the door. I think one of his bigger issues was to just change the muscle mass and make it more productive as opposed to just having 250 pounds. … He’s probably in the best condition he’s been in.”
Rounding out the group is redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson. Robinson sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, so he had more time and energy to focus on conditioning throughout the year.
“I would say that a lot of (my improvements) are physically,” Robinson said. “I put on about 20 pounds, which is pretty big. I’ve been working with Coach Sanderson a lot, which has been big for me. Just adjusting to speed and the physicality of play.”
ZAK IS BACK: Beilein confirmed that junior forward Zak Irvin will be back shooting on Friday. After having minor back surgery in early September that was expected to keep him out for six to eight weeks, he’s right on schedule.
In open practice Thursday, Irvin participated in passing drills, but had a bigger role encouraging his teammates throughout scrimmages.
FIGHTING FOR MINUTES: With junior guard Derrick Walton and LeVert back in the mix, all of the Wolverines who played more than expected last season will have to fight harder for the same time allotment this year.
Forward Aubrey Dawkins benefitted from the injury-plagued roster as a freshman, starting 13 games and averaging 20.7 minutes per game.
“It’s been competitive, really competitive,” Dawkins said. “But we all know we have the same end goal in mind, so once you step off the court, everybody’s back to being teammates and being friends and stuff. But in between those lines, it’s really competitive.”
Added Beilein: “It’s going to be tough. We’ve got four guys who are 6-foot-9 to 6-foot-10, and how many minutes are out there for them? That’s what we’re trying to figure out right now. I would think that would be evolving all year long. The competition, right now, is fierce in practice for those precious 40 minutes out there.”