It’s becoming a theme for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Junior forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward Charles Matthews have mostly led the way for the Wolverines.
That was most evident in Michigan’s 87-42 drubbing of UC-Riverside on Sunday, and it started early in the game.
Wagner scored the Wolverines’ first three baskets, drilling a three, a midrange jumper and a layup – with the last two coming on Matthews assists. Then Matthews threw down a dunk, and away the Wolverines went. Both players finished with double-doubles. Matthews had 17 points and 12 assists, while Wagner added 21 points and 10 rebounds.
As Michigan’s most talented scorers, the duo often uses the pick-and-roll to get open looks for one another. After setting screens, Wagner gets his points by rolling to the hoop or popping to the three-point line, and Matthews gets his by pulling up for a jumper or turning the corner off and attacking the basket after coming off a screen.
The pick-and-roll continued to work on Sunday as four of Wagner’s first seven points came off the duo’s bread and butter. Matthews came off a screen from Wagner, drew a double team and fed the popping Wagner on the baseline. He hit the open jumper. Moments later, after setting an off-ball screen, Matthews drew another double team and found Wagner again. The junior spun and laid the ball gently into the hoop.
It’s a simple play, but to perfect it, the two needed time to learn each other’s games.
“We played with each other so much over the summer, in open gyms,” Matthews said. “So we just said we knew that we were going to be key components to this team and we wanted to get our chemistry down with one another.”
Added Wagner: “It’s still a work in progress, I think, … trying to figure out tendencies with each other, and there’s still some issues here and there. But I think we’re doing a really good job figuring it out right now, and now is a really good time to figure it out.”
For Wagner, there was an expectation of excellence entering this season. For Matthews, it would be understandable if he was rusty. After all, he hasn’t really played important minutes in two years.
But Matthews blew up in the Wolverines’ exhibition game against Grand Valley, and he has continued to build on that, scoring 20 points in three of seven games. With that, expectations have risen to, and possibly exceeded, those of Wagner.
“(Matthews) never had to make decisions at Kentucky,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But the year that he was able to redshirt with us … he worked so hard on his game to get better. Now, the lights come on, and now he’s got to do it in real time. And (he’s) just learning. I mean, he’s a very young player with huge potential.”
So far, Matthews has proven he can produce in game action. His performance Sunday is an example of his burgeoning confidence on the court. Wagner has been right alongside him, averaging 6.9 more points per game and 5.3 more rebounds per game than he was at this point last season.
As the season progresses, perhaps Matthews and Wagner’s successes will open up opportunities for players around them. But for now, with games against the likes of North Carolina, UCLA and Texas coming up, the duo’s upward trend has surfaced at the right time.