BLOOMINGTON — Coming out of the halftime break with a 10-point lead, the Michigan men’s basketball team emerged from the tunnel shooting on their first possession, when senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. found sophomore forward Moritz Wagner for a pick-and-pop shot.
The ball rimmed out as Wagner’s shot just missed the mark.
On the Wolverines’ next time down the floor, sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman found himself open, but his shot also rattled out.
Michigan missed its first six shots of the half before Wagner finally nailed a 3-pointer at the 15:43 mark, ending an almost eight-minute scoring drought.
Playing in a hostile environment like Assembly Hall and going cold from the floor would doom the Wolverines earlier in the season — much like the game at South Carolina back in November.
But this time, it didn’t. Indiana only scored once during the drought, and Michigan’s first make of the half actually extended their halftime lead.
While the backcourt played a big role — Abdur-Rakhman played exceptional defense on Indiana star guard James Blackmon Jr. — it was the Wolverines’ post men that made the biggest impact.
Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson led the charge down in the post.
On both ends of the floor, the duo delivered a strong performance that saw them combine for 10 points and 5 rebounds in the first half while completely shutting down Indiana’s other star, forward Thomas Bryant.
With Wagner and Wilson averaging double-digit points per game, there was no doubt that the two big men could put the ball in the bucket.
In the past few weeks, though, Michigan fans have witnessed the duo grow in two other areas: on the boards and on defense.
“Offensively, we didn’t do anything special,” Wagner said. “We just played our game. I know we’re hard to guard so we don’t need to change anything. … If we can just make the opponent feel uncomfortable, it’s such a big advantage.”
On the boards, Wagner reached a double-digit rebounding total, grabbing 10 on his way to the first double-double of his career.
It was an effort that had been coming for Wagner, and at Indiana on Sunday, all his work finally paid off.
While Wilson had just two rebounds Sunday, he still complemented Wagner with his defensive effort and offensive prowess.
On defense, Wagner was given a tough matchup with Bryant, who had been averaging 20.2 points in his past five games.
And after Bryant was held to just 13 points and one rebound in the two foes’ first matchup back in January, Michigan improved on that stat line, holding Indiana’s big man to just eight points on 3-for-8 shooting.
The Wolverines put a double team on Bryant this time, effectively shutting him out and forcing him to find solace behind the perimeter, where he also wasn’t successful, missing four 3-pointers.
“Moe and (redshirt junior forward Mark Donnal) have been doing a good job of fronting the post, not allowing them to get too many touches as they do in the post,” Wilson said. “We executed our game plan on defense as far as setting up the other one to trap the post guy and it worked out.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “We didn’t want to give (Bryant) the same look every time. He’s too talented.”
While Wilson’s length was crucial for the double team to work, his help defense was just as vital.
Wilson slid over seamlessly to clog the lane all night, not allowing Indiana’s big men to operate.
“He’s doing a great job,” Wagner said. “He’s very good at using his arms. He’s so long and fast on his feet so it’s a really big advantage he has, and he uses it pretty well.”
Added Beilein: “The young man, for two years, has worked really had. The cerebral part of the game, he has the ability to do it, but he hasn’t had to be measured up and be accountable in games for it because it’s been scout team, it’s high school. It’s not like it is now, and he’s just embracing it all, trying to grow from it.
The growth of both Wilson and Wagner has been a whirlwind of a ride, including various ups and downs, ranging from the beginning of the season, when they were too aggressive on defense, committing too many fouls, to the beginning of Big Ten play, when they were afraid to be physical and their defense suffered. Now, though, the duo has found the balance to make them successful.
And as their play has started to turn for the better, so have Michigan’s results.
Now, their biggest challenge will be playing at that consistent level down the stretch, when the games will surely define Michigan’s season.