Derrick Walton has been a catalyst for the once improbable journey that the Michigan basketball is currently on, but as is the case in most great tales, there is more than one hero. As a matter of fact a new Maize & Blue hero seems to rise up in every chapter. Today against the Louisville Cardinals it was Moritz Wagner's turn to step, and the German import delivered.
That might have come as a surprise to those that only saw him versus Oklahoma State Thursday. Foul trouble and defensive ineffectiveness limited him to 14 minutes in the opening round victory. Afterward he was disappointed in himself, but happy with the victory. His focus shifted immediately to improving “in the next forty minutes.” That’s the kind of maturation John Beilein has seen his talented protégé exhibit more as the season has gone on.
“His emotional stability is growing every day,” said Beilein. “It’s only because he loves the game so much that it gets a little out of whack. He cares so much about winning that he just will get himself worked up and makes some decisions he regrets. Whether it’s turning the ball over, taking a bad shot, (and) not focusing on defense is still an issue. Right now I see this learning curve with him because him he hates to lose. We challenged him. We said, ‘we need you on offense, but you’re not going to play if you don’t continue to grow as a defender. You can’t do it when you’ve got a suitcase.’ He is carrying a suitcase down the court because he is still thinking about the play on offense when he is on defense. You can’t play with a suitcase in your hand.”
Fortunately for Michigan he didn’t carry it with him into the second round. The Cardinals blitzed Walton with their lengthy defenders and made it a point to take him bother him at every turn. In the process of doing that, though, they left themselves vulnerable elsewhere.
“They’ve got great length and they had a great game plan to be able to get in Derrick’s way,” said Beilein. “But when they’re taking that away and they extend the court, it makes a big court for us. If they’re not doubling down off of Moe, then D.J. (Wilson) is able to get to the rim. It allows us to exploit some other areas.”
And exploit them was exactly what Wilson and especially Wagner did. Wagner was unleashed his full offensive arsenal and was virtually unstoppable all day. He scored putting the ball on the deck, he scored with his back to the basket, and he even nailed a three for good measure. When the dust settled he had converted 11/14 field goals for a game high 26 points.
“I just let the game come to me,” Wagner said. “Don't force anything and see what happens. Today, I got a couple easy ones early. Therefore, my confidence level was high.”
Wagner’s teammates were a tad more impressed.
“Mo just has the mentality of he's not scared in the moment, and I think you definitely saw that today,” Wilson said. “Down the stretch when he got the ball he knew he was going to make a play, and we watched him. He executed well down the stretch. That was a big confidence boost.”
“He has been a problem all year,” Walton added. “He is a match up nightmare. We spread them out and put him in space… I think we’re playing to his strength.”
Once that well was open the Wolverines were committed to going to it until it dried up.
It never did.
“When Moe faces a guy and faces the basket whether it’s right there on the block or from 16-17 feet he is really effective,” Michigan assistant Saddi Washington said. “I like our chances with Moe attacking the basket versus any player in the country right now. It was just great to see him have success tonight. He really jump-started our team.”
That Michigan eliminated one of the tournaments best teams without its best player performing at a high level has raised belief in the team from outside the program to an all-time high. Inside the program, though, nothing has changed.
"We always believed in ourselves, not only from a shooting respect, but also on the defensive end and in the paint as well,” said Wagner. “So, yeah, I'm very happy. I just said that to Coach B, we only (made) six threes today and we won. So it's awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”
“Each game in the NCAA is a street fight. Did you see thse guys? They’re really big and really strong and we knew they’d be very physical. We didn’t shoot well. So we won gritty and I’m very happy about that.”