Most everyone inside Verizon Center on Thursday could see that D.J. Wilson was instrumental in Michigan’s 74-70 upset of Purdue. His 26 points were his second most of the season, and his baskets seemed to come at critical moments of a game that could have gone either way.
What may have been less obvious, though, was advantage he gave Michigan on the other end of the floor.
With fellow big men Moritz Wagner and Mark Donnal in foul trouble, Wilson was left defend the post and try to keep Purdue’s big men — Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan and seven-footer Isaac Haas — in check. It was a difficult assignment to say the least.
But Wilson rose to the occasion. He was so good, in fact, that Michigan coach John Beilein felt comfortable leaving Wagner, his starting center, on the bench in overtime.
“D.J. was doing just a great job in the post and guarding defense,” Beilein said. “ If he hadn’t guarded, (Wagner) would have been back in. But it appeared at times that we weren’t good enough individually to guard (Swanigan), except D.J. did the job.”
Senior forward Zak Irvin, who was at times forced onto Swanigan with Wagner and Donnal both out, lauded Wilson’s performance on defense.
“How well he guarded Swanigan and Haas definitely changed the game for us,” Irvin said.
Wilson posted eight rebounds on the day, and his play was crucial with Wagner hampered by fouls. In Michigan’s previous win over Purdue, it was the German who stole the show, showcasing dominant shooting in the first half and seemingly neutralizing a Haas-Swanigan combo.
With Wagner sidelined, it would have been fair to assume the Boilermakers would dominate the glass. Instead, the Wolverines actually outrebounded Purdue, 38-37, and no Michigan player had more boards than Wilson.
But perhaps Wilson's most nerve-wracking defensive play came on the final possession of regulation.
With 4.2 seconds on the clock and the game tied, Purdue had a chance for a buzzer-beating shot, just as Northwestern had (and converted) last week. Boilermaker guard Carsen Edwards got a look at the basket, but, when he hoisted up his would-be 3-pointer, Wilson was there to slam the door on regulation with a block.
“Going into it I was telling myself just to stay on my feet,” Wilson said. “And then when he went up, I went up as well.”
Put that way, it sounds simple. But to Michigan, it may have been the difference between winning and losing.