INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been going on all season.
Derrick Walton Jr. brings the ball up the court. Moritz Wagner saunters from the top of the key and sets a high-ball screen. The sophomore forward plants his 6-foot-11 frame on his senior point guard’s defender.
Walton drives by Wagner’s left shoulder with a decision to make — take it to the hole or feed it to his big man, unattended behind the arc with his hands prepared for a pass that may never come and a shot he wants to take.
More often than not, it goes something like this: Wagner gets the ball, knocks it down and heads down the court with some variation of the emotional celebration he has become known for. It’s all too easy.
Tomorrow afternoon, Oklahoma State has the unpleasant task of making that a lot harder.
As Big Ten play ran its course, eventually, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s conference foes caught on. Any time the Wolverines faced a conference team for the second time, Wagner noticed the adjustments.
Some teams would have their ‘4’ guard Wagner from the get-go, hoping to switch screens more effectively. Others would simply try to run Wagner off the line, often to no avail.
“If somebody runs you off the line, you just gotta shot fake and dribble,” Wagner said. “I think that’s something I do pretty well.”
Added Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington: “I think it actually helped us, from being able to compare the moments like that so that this isn’t the first time we’re seeing a five-man switching rotation from a defense.
“I think because we’ve basically seen it for the last three weeks of the season, we’ve been able to adapt ourselves and our offense to be prepared for it.”
The bottom line is that the majority of the Wolverines’ competition has had multiple cracks at bringing Michigan’s pick-and-pop system crumbling down. Most of the time, those teams have failed.
On Friday afternoon, though, Oklahoma State needs to buck that trend. If the Cowboys don’t, then their tournament is likely to end early.
Austin Davis knows from first-hand experience just how difficult bucking that trend will be, though. If the freshman forward’s experience is any indication, that will be no easy task.
As a member of the scout team, Davis has been matching up with Wagner all season in practice.
“It’s really difficult, because you’re always guessing,” Davis said. “…You’re just always on your heels.
“You just try to stay in front of (Wagner) and bother his shot as best you can. He’s 6-foot-11. You’re not gonna affect too much if he’s gonna shoot it.”
The Cowboys have seen plenty of talented guards in the Big 12, Frank Mason III and Monte Morris being just two of them. How they fare against Walton may not be the problem, but how they fare against Wagner could be a big one.
Oklahoma State hasn’t seen a big man like Wagner or redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson all season.
Cowboy forward Mitchell Solomon said Wagner reminds him of Baylor’s Johnathan Motley and Texas Christian’s Vladimir Brodziansky, but even they don’t “play outside as much as Wagner”.
And that’s an understatement. Wagner has attempted 108 3-pointers and converted at a 40.7 percent clip. Motley and Brodziansky, however, have attempted just 31 and 29, respectively.
“It’s completely different,” Solomon said. “Almost all the guys in the Big 12 are big bruisers that we’ve done a lot of battle in the paint. It’s going to be different playing out on the perimeter a little more, but I think we’ll be ready for it.”