It’s becoming a routine for Michigan’s big men.
Sophomore Ricky Doyle picks up an early foul. Freshman Moritz Wagner energetically jumps from the bench to replace him, but he picks up a foul of his own within minutes. Redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson is momentarily called upon to provide relief at the ‘5’ spot, but Doyle typically subs back in, eventually picking up a second personal foul. Sometimes Wagner will pick up a second, too.
Michigan coach John Beilein will hold steadfastly to his rule of never playing somebody with two fouls in the first half. Wagner (if he’s available), Wilson and sometimes even junior forward Mark Donnal — who has fallen to fourth on the depth chart after starting the Wolverines’ first three games this season — are called upon to man the low post as halftime approaches.
Incredibly, it’s not always a problem for Michigan.
“That’s why we’ve got so many of those big dudes,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after Michigan’s 78-72 defeat of Texas on Friday, during which he used the same revolving-door philosophy at center. “So that we can do that.”
Wagner entered the game after just two minutes and 30 seconds on Thursday. He had to wait seven seconds longer for Doyle to pick up his first personal on Friday, but he checked in with 17:23 left in the first half.
The 6-foot-10 German actually made it six minutes without picking up a personal foul. With Doyle already at two, Wagner picked up a second with 1:15 remaining in the period.
In came Wilson. He lasted a whopping three seconds before getting whistled for a foul. Exit Wilson, enter Donnal.
“We really preach not fouling,” Beilein said. “We learned our lesson in the game with Jalen Reynolds and Xavier. We thought we did a good job with that. But I was more worried in the second half, when they were in the one-and-one (bonus) with about 10 minutes to go — that was worrisome.”
Texas’ late-game charge created some pressure, but the four-man plan at center was surprisingly effective on Friday, and has been throughout the season. Then again, it’s likely unsustainable over the course of a full year, or even the next few weeks. Beilein said two weeks ago that he prefers to play just three players at the ‘5.’
Besides, playing four at the position is likely a bandage on a broken leg. The Wolverines can’t afford to let three or four players on a given night get into foul trouble. They got lucky with the Longhorns — Texas shot an abysmal 8-for-19 from the free-throw line. Had they converted more efficiently, it’s easy to envision a different outcome.
Donnal’s return to Beilein’s good graces was one of Friday’s more notable happenings. After his dive down the depth chart, few would have predicted he’d be playing in a three-point game late in the second half against Texas. He scored four points and pulled down three rebounds in 10 minutes played.
“I don’t like having to coach that way, but you’ve got to have an edge in there that you’re not only playing for your team — you’re playing for your time,” Beilein said. “We’ve got that with the big kids, that we can actually make adjustments.”
Beilein knows there’s no bigger motivator than minutes. But if his bigs can’t reign in the fouls, he’ll have to give all four time, as he’s done in three of the Wolverines’ last four games.
Then again, few teams are as large and physical as Texas. But with Wagner’s sudden emergence and Donnal’s newfound status as the fourth option, there’s little telling who’ll play a month from now. Or three minutes into the first half.