John Beilein, having just watched his team suffer a 16-point loss on its home floor, offered a fairly damning assessment of the reason for the opponent’s superiority Nov. 20.
“They looked like men out there,” Beilein said, referring to the Xavier squad that sent fans packing early from Crisler Center with a dominant, 86-70 victory. “Their bodies are strong. They’re quick. They went right at us.”
If Xavier looked like a group of men — calm, collected, physical, confident — Michigan looked like anything but. The Wolverines knew what was coming that night but couldn’t stop Musketeer big men Jalen Reynolds and James Farr.
Those two might as well have walked the crowd through a PowerPoint presentation detailing the multitude of reasons Michigan wasn’t ready to compete down low. Their performance ended up being even more demonstrative.
The Wolverines’ bigs — a motley crew of Ricky Doyle, Moritz Wagner, D.J. Wilson and Mark Donnal — are “trying to learn to play hard and smart,” Beilein said. Against Xavier, they were neither. None of the four has more than a year’s experience in college basketball, and it showed. Michigan was outrebounded, 47-29. Farr and Reynolds combined for 23 points. Donnal and Doyle were plagued by foul trouble throughout.
The same was true Wednesday against No. 18 Connecticut, a team that relies less on scoring in the paint but proved just as capable of outmuscling the Wolverines. In its 74-60 loss, Michigan was outrebounded, 42-31.
The Wolverines were already in the Bahamas for that game, the first round of a remarkably competitive Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. As it turned out, all they needed to right the ship was a few more days in paradise.
Maybe it was a few rounds on the water slides, an afternoon by the pool or a hearty Thanksgiving meal, but by Thursday night, the Wolverines had shaken off the loss. They played like men Thursday, taking Charlotte to task in a 102-47 laugher.
No, Charlotte isn’t close to the caliber of opposition provided by Connecticut or Xavier. But Michigan survived on the boards and maintained its composure against a physical, talented Texas team the next night, too, and telltale signs of the growth Beilein discusses so often appeared left and right.
For a 6-foot-10 athlete, Wagner looks young — younger, if it’s possible for someone his size, than his 18 years. But his boyishness disappeared against Charlotte. The German freshman scored 19 points on Thursday, and added seven more the next night against Texas. More importantly, he made progress on the glass, pulling down four rebounds Friday. This season, Beilein said, is the first Wagner has ever spent actually thinking about rebounding.
“Europeans, all they do is teach everybody to play like a guard,” Beilein said. “He’s got such great intuitions for the game that he should be able to figure out where some of the basketballs are coming off. Four rebounds today is big for him. As he grows, we need him to keep doing that.”
It won’t be until after the coming offseason — when Wagner has time to focus on bolstering his slender 225-pound frame — that he’ll be able to match up physically with Big Ten forwards. Until then, Wagner can continue to use his creative, energetic style in the paint to provide a change of pace that, if nothing else, will make it tougher for opponents to adjust to Doyle when he checks back in.
Doyle, of course, is plenty big. He’s 25 pounds heavier than Wagner, all of it muscle. He needs to learn how to be physical on defense without fouling, and to play longer stretches in which he makes a bigger impact on the boards. He’s ahead of Wagner in terms of physicality, but Wagner has already surpassed him in terms of craftiness in the paint.
It’s easy to envision the pair growing into a lethal one-two punch at center for Michigan. Wagner’s speed and enthusiasm, combined with Doyle’s size, provide enough of a stylistic difference to make the forward play unpredictable. Even Wilson, a redshirt freshman, caught his coach’s eye Thursday with a step-across dunk that Beilein said typically gets blocked. Add him for a few minutes per game, and the Wolverines’ play becomes three-deep and three-dimensional.
Doyle spent the 2014-15 season proving that he could be more productive than Donnal at the ‘5’ spot. Why Donnal, and not Doyle, started the season’s first three games is something of a mystery. Beilein used the word “overmatched” to describe Donnal’s performance against Xavier. There’s not much else to say, but Donnal and Michigan learned an early lesson.
Beilein doesn’t seem to mind too much. Among his preferred sayings is this: “If you’re gonna lose, lose early.”
The Wolverines are taking the recommendation to heart, as they did in 2013-14. They started 4-4 that season and came seconds away from an Elite Eight win over Kentucky.
Michigan has plenty of work to do before it reaches that team’s level, or comes anywhere close. Being a team that “looks like men” is an obvious first step.
The Wolverines aren’t a team that looks like men — yet. But they’re farther down the road than they were a week ago. Even in paradise, there’s no better motivator than getting beaten up.