LINCOLN – It’s normally like clockwork.
A Michigan guard holds the ball outside the 3-point line. Junior forward Moritz Wagner runs up to set a screen. Against a lot of teams, Wagner’s ability to drill a shot from deep off the pick-and-pop makes the incredibly simple play near-impossible to guard — Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said as much after Monday’s game. If you hedge on the ball handler, Wagner will be wide open. If you help too hard on Wagner, the ball handler will be headed downhill to the basket.
On Thursday night against Nebraska, though, it wasn’t that easy.
Cornhusker coach Tim Miles started forward Isaiah Roby, tasking him with defending Wagner. Nebraska then switched on every ball screen. There was no room for the ball handler to attack the hoop, and there was no space for Wagner to shoot the three.
The Wolverines had no response to the defense, and Wagner — usually an offensive juggernaut — finished with two points on 1-for-5 shooting.
“They switched everything. On every screen,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Roby allows them to do that. I don’t know if it would be successful with the big guys, but that’s a thing we’re going to see again from many teams. And we saw it actually all at the end of last year, and we’ve got to continue to develop what we do in that situation.”
Last season, the play had a more obvious solution. The Wolverines had Derrick Walton Jr., who could simply blow by a bigger defender, often making them look silly along the way. This year’s team has yet to find somebody who can make those plays consistently.
Michigan even saw it earlier this season against Purdue. And though the defense stymied Wagner and the rest of the offense for a time in that game as well, they mounted a comeback with their guards hitting 3-pointers over top of a mismatched big man.
Against the Cornhuskers, there was none of that, as the Wolverines shot just 22 percent from deep.
“We didn’t make shots,” Wagner said. “We were like, I think I saw up there we made 21 shots today. That’s not a lot for a whole basketball game. When you don’t make shots they make shots, on the road especially, that’s just tough, man, you gotta be better than that.”
One might think the answer is to put Wagner in the post and expose the guard who is now guarding him. Michigan tried that.
Nebraska’s guards played in front of Wagner, denying an easy entry pass. The few times the Wolverines tried to lob it into the big man, the help defense was waiting to poke the ball away or contest the shot.
Another answer would be for Michigan’s guards to do their best Walton impression and use their quickness to generate shots from deep or layups at the rim. The Wolverines tried that too.
That also led to sloppiness, with players missing contested layups, getting blocked at the rim or simply turning the ball over once they got into the lane.
To put it simply, there is no easy answer. If there were, as Wagner said after the game, “I wouldn’t have lost.”
But an answer will have to come eventually. While many teams don’t have the length and versatility of the Cornhuskers, like Beilein said, teams are going to continue switching screens on Wagner until the Wolverines prove they can beat it.
It could be any one of these solutions. It’s likely a combination of all of them.
Either way, the book is out on how to defend Michigan. What Turgeon said after Monday’s game is no longer true. Now, Beilein, Wagner and the rest of the Wolverines will have to find a way to adjust.