After his team’s regular-season opener on Friday, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein said earning minutes at the ‘5’ spot would be “very competitive.” He never said it would be a blood battle.

But that didn’t stop freshman forward Moritz Wagner from stiffening his 6-foot-10 frame and setting his feet to take a charge midway through the second half of the Wolverines’ win against Elon on Monday. When he stood up, blood dripped down from a gash in his forehead. He slapped his chest twice and returned to the bench to wipe away the blood.

Wagner was one of four big men whom Beilein rotated in during the Wolverines’ 88-68 win over the Phoenix. In each half, the situation down low looked more or less like this: Junior forward Mark Donnal started, then redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson and sophomore Ricky Doyle subbed in after five minutes, then Wagner for a few. And then, late in each frame, Beilein mixed it up.

After getting the start for the second game in a row, Donnal grabbed an offensive board early in the first half and put it back in. Two minutes later, he committed an off-ball foul, and soon after that Beilein pulled him and sophomore guard Kameron Chatman in exchange for Wilson and Doyle, with Doyle playing the ‘5’ and Wilson playing as a stretch forward.

Wilson nailed his first 3-point attempt, but then, like Donnal, he committed a foul on the other end. Beilein opted to go with a smaller lineup and pulled Wilson. Then, in keeping with the theme, Doyle committed his first foul and found himself on the bench with Wilson taking his spot.

Wilson scored on a layup quickly after reentering, then committed his second foul. Wilson out. Wagner in.

It was a big-man merry-go-round.

Wagner lasted less than three minutes in the first half, but his physical play was enough to impress Beilein. He did a nice job of boxing out his man on the defensive end and fought for a rebound off the offensive glass, forcing the ball off an Elon defender and giving Michigan possession.

“I like what Moritz is doing,” Beilein said. “He comes in here, he weighed 231 (pounds) today, so we’re now plus-20 (pounds) from when he walked in. He is on a different weight lifting (routine). I like what he did.”

Beilein was quick to talk about each of his bigs.  

“Mark took charges,” he said. “Ricky, he had (three) rebounds, and a dunk — both hands on the ball, way above the rim. And D.J. played a little bit there. D.J. struggled in some other areas today. He’s just gotta sort of concentrate on less things.”

Each big earned his turn on the floor on Monday. Donnal tallied 15 minutes, Doyle and Wilson 13 each and Wagner seven. But Beilein knows it isn’t realistic to play four bigs every game.

“We hope we’ll get a rotation,” Beilein said. “We can’t be rotating four guys there. Somebody’s gonna beat somebody out, and we’ll go with two or three (big men). Usually you need three, but we’ll go with two primarily and a third guy will back up, and a fourth guy will have to wait his turn.”

Based on minutes alone, Donnal has been Beilein’s most trusted manut Doyle has been the most productive. Doyle went 3-for-4 from the field, including a big dunk, and the 6-foot-9 sophomore also knocked down two of three free throws for eight points on the night. On the defensive side, he grabbed three boards. 

Wilson struggled against the Phoenix. He had twice as many fouls (four) as he had made field goals (two). But in Michigan’s first game, he looked more poised, going 2-for-4 from the field and dishing out three assists in 23 minutes. Despite his lackluster performance Monday, Wilson is a more athletic option than Donnal and can work as another threat from the perimeter for Michigan.

The biggest wild card is still Wagner. The Berlin product was an option to redshirt at the beginning of the year, but Beilein opted to play him. In two games, he’s just 1-for-3 from the field but has shown an ability to step up on defense, which he demonstrated by taking a charge on Monday.

“That was awesome,” said redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson. “He brings a ton of energy, to get up and pump his chest like that. That was a lot of fun. … He’s talking a lot, brining a lot of energy, so he’s a great teammate.”

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