INDIANAPOLIS — When assistant coach Saddi Washington arrived in Ann Arbor, the cupboard held slim pickings.
There was the sophomore who had shown flashes of brilliance but could not rebound or defend. There was the fifth-year senior whose performances had mostly hovered around adequate. And there was the redshirt sophomore whose development was taking longer than planned.
Expected to replace Bacari Alexander as Michigan’s big man whisperer, Washington was tasked with turning that trio into a frontcourt that could contend in the Big Ten.
They’re contending on a much bigger stage than that now.
The sophomore, of course, is Moritz Wagner, who has blossomed into the man who fluctuates somewhere between maddening and exceptional.
The fifth-year senior is Mark Donnal, the one who has accepted his role as the third option in the forward rotation with grace.
And finally, the redshirt sophomore, DJ Wilson — the lanky 6-foot-10 Californian who has turned from surprise to dependable performer with every day of the season that has passed.
Friday afternoon was no different.
There was a moment in the first half that stood out to Sean Lonergan in particular.
Wilson grabbed a defensive rebound, turning toward the Michigan bench while in the process of coming down with the ball, and screamed at this teammates to start hitting the boards.
Two years ago, the only time he’d turn toward that bench was when he almost inevitably picked up a quick foul or was heading back to the depths of the pine after failing to make the most of a chance. He’d do so looking lost, not like a leader.
“You see DJ starting to take things personally,” Lonergan said. “You see him really starting to hold other people on this team accountable, hold himself accountable. He’s really playing at a high level, man. That’s who DJ is, and that’s who he’s gonna continue to be.”
At this point, it makes perfect sense that Wilson has made the leap. When you have someone texting you every day that you need to, it’s hard to rest on your laurels.
That’s where Washington came in. He knew a lot of the work he needed to do with Michigan’s young big men was mental. So he texted roughly half of the team at the beginning of the year, asking who needed to step up in order for the Wolverines to be successful.
“Those two guys’ names came up every time: Moe and DJ.”
Now, as a result, Wilson rarely goes a day without a text from Washington.
“He always shot little short texts telling me how the team needs me and I’m the X factor and what not.”
Calling Wilson the X factor of Friday’s game couldn’t have been more accurate.
In the first half, Wagner found himself in foul trouble once again. With barely three minutes gone, Michigan’s big man headed to the bench with his second foul, only to return for a total of three minutes for the rest of the frame.
For the second time in seven days, Wilson was faced with holding down the ‘5’ knowing his frontcourt partner wasn’t going to provide much — if any — relief. He sure didn’t look fazed.
Wilson turned in a complete 20 minutes, finishing second on the team in scoring with 10 points while also pitching in three rebounds and two blocks. During a frame in which Oklahoma State could have all but pulled away with Wagner on the bench, Wilson made sure the Cowboys didn’t.
His role only grew from there.
In the second half, he put forth another 20-minute effort — an atypical sight for a 6-foot-10 big man — while scoring another nine to finish second on the team behind only Derrick Walton Jr. with 19 points.
His impact extended to the other end of the court, as well.
Oklahoma State went small, looking to stretch the floor. With Wilson and Wagner both on the floor, the Cowboys were largely successful. But then, for once, Wilson was moved to the ‘5’ out of choice.
It made the Wolverines’ switching patterns easier and allowed them to beat Oklahoma State at its own game, knocking down 11 of 15 3-pointers in the second half to eventually clinch a win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Wagner played just 14 minutes, entirely because Wilson made sure Michigan could afford to. And that was clear as ever in the game’s waning moments.
After being fouled, Wilson walked slowly to the charity stripe with 3.7 seconds left. The Wolverines’ lead was down to two.
Though Michigan held a seven-point advantage just 50 seconds earlier, it couldn’t seem to hit enough free throws to keep a comfortable cushion.
He wiped his left shoe, then wiped his right.
He spun the ball into the air and let it hit the floor, before crouching and bouncing the ball three more times. Then his eyes went to the rim.
He knocked down one, repeated the routine and knocked down another. Goodnight.
Like the rest of his career, the pressure was on Wilson.
And it didn’t come from his coach or from his teammates.
Last season didn’t come even close to what Wilson hoped for. It seemed like he squandered every chance he had to establish himself as a rotation player.
The situation that he found himself in at the end of Friday’s game was one that he never would have been in last year. Maybe that’s why the pressure didn’t bother him, because he’d been creating it for himself all this time.
“(I was) extremely (hard on myself), at an all-time high,” Wilson said. “I was down, and I wasn’t really mad at anybody but myself. I knew that when I got the opportunity (last year) that I didn’t really make the most of it.
“That’s something that I vouched to change this year.”