CHAMPAIGN — The emergence of Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson has given the Michigan men’s basketball team an offensive dimension it hasn’t seen in the John Beilein era.
The forwards, who both have two years of eligibility remaining, have shown flashes of upside in their respective scoring abilities. Just over a week ago, Wilson hung 28 points on an Iowa team that couldn’t find an answer for stopping the 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore. Wagner, too, had a solid 17-point performance against Penn State seven days ago.
But while much of the attention around the two forwards was centered around what the pair can add offensively, the defensive liabilities of Wagner and Wilson were severely underestimated.
The cracks have always been there, but have especially begun to show themselves since the start of Big Ten play.
Against the Hawkeyes, the Wolverines were a possession away from stealing a conference road win. But an offensive rebound and putback could have been prevented, or at least made more difficult, by having a big box-out below the hoop allowed Iowa to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Penn State and Maryland saw the defensive flaws the Hawkeyes had managed to unearth and built game plans around them. Nittany Lion forward Lamar Simmons and Terrapin forward Demonte Dodd were both key to their teams building substantial leads against the Wolverines in their own building.
With those performances in the past week, it wasn’t hard for Illinois to come up with the blueprint to expose the Michigan defense, but the degree to which the Fighting Illini dominated the interior is the most concerning.
Illinois attacked the Wolverines at the post early and often. Fighting Illini forwards Maverick Morgan and Leron Black scored Illinois’ first 10 points jumpers and hook shots that Wolverine defenders allowed too much space on. Morgan, who entered Wednesday averaging 9.4 points per game, finished the first half with 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting.
Morgan simply outsmarted Michigan’s post defenders. He varied his shot selection, passed the ball out when he needed to and used his experience to outplay the defense.
“Everything they were doing out there we saw on film,” Wilson said. “They hit a lot of short rolls, 15-footers. (Morgan) in general, he was 8-for-9 from the field and it felt like he didn’t miss one of those. We scouted it. We watched a lot of film. They just executed well.”
Physicality has also been an element of the Wolverines’ struggles down low, especially in the case of Wagner and senior forward Mark Donnal. Wagner has been timid in using his body and frame to box out and take on opponents crashing the boards, while, at 6-foot-9, Donnal is undersized at the position.
Michigan’s pair playing the ‘5’ had only one rebound in the first half and as a team the Wolverines had given up just as many offensive rebounds as defensive rebounds they grabbed themselves.
Those are the stats that will make winning any game in the Big Ten just about impossible.
Much has been made of Michigan’s struggles defending the perimeter the past couple games. The Wolverines are last in the conference in 3-point defense and had another concerning outing, allowing Illinois to shoot 64-percent from behind the arc.
But much of the Fighting Illini’s success shooting the ball from deep on Wednesday came from their plays in the paint.
Illinois forwards were drawing Wolverine perimeter defenders inside to play help defense, leaving guards open on the outside to make shots.
Morgan, again, was the one making this happen, and earned four assists on the night.
It’s hard to completely put the blame of Michigan’s defensive struggles solely on its post players, because, as tonight showed, they just don’t have the experience to matchup with mature Big Ten forwards.
Wagner and Wilson both started just their fourth Big Ten game Wednesday, and multiple times every game they seem to have forgotten their fundamental defensive principals.
That’s what’s been holding back the Wolverines’ defense the most.
And now it’s solely up to John Beilein and his assistants to solve a problem that is so simple to identify yet so hard to fix in the middle of a conference season.
“Our worst defensive teams were not like this,” Beilein said. “I don’t think schematically it’s anything to do with anything. We get there. We know where we are. But we don’t get there and guard people and effect people’s shots. It’s that simple.”
Carney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @br_carney.