Franz Wagner wasn’t going to wait for anybody — not his fellow Wolverines and certainly not the backtracking Wildcats standing in his way.
Having gathered the defensive rebound on one end, Wagner bobbed and weaved his way down to the other. As a final act, the freshman forward delicately ushered the ball off the glass and in while absorbing contact. With the possibility of a three-point play upcoming, Wagner strolled off, puffing his chest out and gesturing to the Michigan bench, the Wolverines leading by 21 points.
The sequence was just one of a slew of fast break opportunities enjoyed by the Wolverines during Wednesday’s 79-54 rout of the Wildcats. Whether it was a rim-rattling dunk by junior forward Isaiah Livers or a wide-open 3-pointer from junior guard Eli Brooks, Michigan carved up Northwestern’s transition defense. By the end of the night, the Wolverines had scored 17 fast break points — their highest tally since playing Iowa State in late November.
While it’s easy to point to the fact that the lowly Wildcats — currently sitting in last place in the Big Ten with a 1-12 conference record — sit at 162nd in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, Wednesday night was a refreshing reminder of how potent Michigan can be on the break.
To this point, despite coach Juwan Howard’s fundamental insistence on pushing the pace, Michigan hasn’t quite been able to meet those expectations, ranking 107th in possessions per game.
As shifty as the Wolverines’ guards are — namely senior Zavier Simpson and sophomore David DeJulius — Michigan’s transition offense was undoubtedly hampered by Livers’ nine-game absence. With the victory over Northwestern, the Wolverines have now reached double-digit fast break points in ten games, Livers played in all but two of them.
His willingness to run the floor and quick burst opens up lanes for Michigan’s ball-handlers and gives them just another dynamic outlet to drop the ball off to.
“When I was watching, sometimes it was sticky,” Livers said. “Coach Howard talked about the ball sticking. I feel like when I’m out there, I mean yeah, I try and get my shot because coach Howard tells me to be aggressive but also, I’m going to move the ball. When I’m at the top, I’m trying to orchestrate, I try to swing the ball to Eli for a three, get it to (Simpson) going downhill.”
Against the Wildcats, Livers’s presence was not only felt but heard. Disregarding any recollection of his recently-injured groin, Livers spread his wings to flush home two monstrous dunks off transition feeds from Simpson and DeJulius.
“Every time I run down the middle, Dave is always giving it back to me,” Livers said. “So I already knew. Let me run a little bit and see what (Northwestern forward Pete) Nance was going to do. He shadowed more towards Eli. I was there in my takeoff zone and went up off one. It’s exciting to get two dunks to finish a game without getting hurt.”
The uptick in fast break opportunities for the Wolverines also stemmed from an increased workload for DeJulius when Simpson got in foul trouble. DeJulius, one of the quicker players on the team, accrued seven assists in 21 minutes as Michigan’s floor general, with five of them coming in transition.
“I’m naturally a scorer,” DeJulius said. “But that’s not really what I care about. I just care about doing whatever it takes for the team. Just to see that I got seven assists. To see guys get Isaiah the ball and he gets a dunk and he gets to yell, or me kick the ball to Cole (Bajema) and he gets a three. …That feels good to me.”
It might’ve come against Northwestern, but the rare acumen the Wolverines showed on the fast break is definitely a welcome sight.
For better or for worse, expect to see some more high-flying dunks from Livers and more flexing from Wagner.