In the week leading up to the Michigan men’s basketball team’s exhibition opener against Armstrong State, Moritz Wagner could sense that his role on the team was changing.

Coach John Beilein began to have the sophomore forward join the first unit during practice, but Wagner still didn’t know if he would crack the starting five. It wasn’t until the day before the game that Wagner found out for certain when Beilein told him.  

With 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting — tied with senior forward Zak Irvin for the highest output of the night — Wagner stole the show. In 25 minutes on the floor, fewer than only Irvin and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., he justified Beilein’s decision to start him over redshirt junior Mark Donnal, one of the breakout players from a season ago.

“You see the way he runs the floor. You saw his skill level a couple of times, too. His development is huge,” Beilein said. “… His defense is much better, and he stayed out of foul trouble. The big thing is we think he can take a lot of guys his size off the bounce.”

The competition for the ‘5’ spot in the starting lineup between the two big men, which has been brewing throughout the summer and fall, looked all but settled. Wagner emerged with the edge over his more experienced counterpart, and the discussion seemed to be over.

Until last weekend, that is.

Against Howard and IUPUI in the first two games of the regular season, Donnal showed up in a big way for the Wolverines. Providing a spark off the bench that Michigan sorely needed at certain sluggish moments, Donnal proved that he could still be a difference-maker, rather than an afterthought.

In Friday’s matchup versus the Bison, Donnal played nearly 10 more minutes than Wagner — despite being his backup — and made the most of the increased floor time. He finished with 12 points and six rebounds, the team’s second-highest total in each category on the night. Walton beat him out with 20 points, and redshirt junior DJ Wilson topped him with eight boards.

The bench duo of Donnal and Wilson combined for 21 points and 14 rebounds and helped the Wolverines snap out of an early funk, in which they simply couldn’t score for the first five minutes of the game. As the sixth and seventh men in the lineup, the pair gave Michigan the boost it needed to secure a 76-58 win.

“That’s our job, to be energy guys off the bench,” Donnal said. “What we’re trying to bring every game is energy (to) pick up the guys on the starting five and not have a drop-off when the bench comes on the floor.”

In Sunday’s game against the Jaguars, Donnal’s numbers on offense fell to eight points and three boards, but his contributions mattered most on the defensive side of the ball.

IUPUI put up a strong challenge in the first half, maintaining a considerable lead while the Wolverines attempted to whittle away at the deficit. Though Michigan finally took the lead with seven minutes left, it gave it right back and the Jaguars held onto a 32-30 advantage with four minutes remaining. That’s when Beilein decided to put Donnal in the game.  

The move worked wonders, as Donnal’s presence shored up the defense and helped the Wolverines hold their own in the face of the offensive barrage of the Jaguars. Michigan held IUPUI scoreless to close the opening half, launching a 13-0 run to enter halftime with a 43-32 advantage that it wouldn’t relinquish.

“When Mark went into the game, it changed things defensively. He can plug gaps,” Beilein said. “(Wagner) is still trying to learn where he should be sometimes. He’s guessing sometimes, and the game needs to slow down for him in ball screen coverage. … When they see a center trying to figure things out, they just attack the big guy. Mark plugged that up, and that was a big difference.”

Just like that, the competition is back on.

Beilein may not have officially reopened it, and he kept Wagner as the starter so far, but he also seems to have an open mind about the topic. He may stick with his decision, but after two standout performances, Donnal might have changed his mind.

“That’s what we have to sort out is what’s the best lineup really for every game,” Beilein said. “There’s some hard-charging teams in the Big Ten. … Mark can plug and do some great things — not going to jump out of the gym. He just needs to be there and be strong going after the ball. I’m proud of the way he’s played so far; it’s two good games back to back.”

While Beilein’s choice may change on a nightly basis, what won’t is that if Donnal can maintain the level of production he has exhibited off the bench thus far, he will find the floor.

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