Ann Arbor — With the emergence of Mark Donnal helping to stabilize Michigan’s frontcourt issues, at least early in Big Ten play, Moritz Wagner has seen his minutes dry up. He didn’t even play at all in the victory over Maryland.
But the freshman from Germany is keeping his head up, believing his time will come — but, at the same time, being Donnal’s biggest cheerleader.
“I’m impressed the way Mark is playing. I’m not jealous at all,” Wagner said Tuesday, ahead of Wednesday night’s game at home against Minnesota. “I’m willing to learn a lot from him. I can.”
What has Wagner learned so far from Donnal, two years his senior?
“It’s never over till it’s over,” Wagner said, smiling. “Obviously, he’s been through some tough times as a junior this season, with not a great start.
“And then he came out of nothing, for you guys (media). For me, I kind of knew. I played against him in practice. I knew what I had to deal with. It’s not a big surprise to me. I’m just happy he plays the way he plays.”
Michigan coach John Beilein has said for several weeks that the frontcourt guys he plays will be determined by how well they practice, and just before Big Ten play, Donnal proved the clear winner there.
In the five Big Ten games, Donnal has averaged 15 points and almost eight rebounds, huge numbers for a team that had to find them from somebody playing the last four games without Caris LeVert (lower left leg).
“It’s a great competition,” Wagner said of practice. “I said that in preseason, too. That’s why we’re here. Basketball is a sport of five people on the court, but at the end of the day, it’s the whole team that gets the ring, you know what I mean, or loses. It’s competition, but competition makes it fun.
“That’s why I play the game.”
Wagner played 10 minutes in Sunday’s loss at Iowa, the most he’s played in conference action. He helped give the Wolverines a spark early, helping rally them from an early 11-0 deficit. But defense remains a work in progress for Wagner, just like it was earlier in the season for Donnal.
That was before Donnal shocked so many — but, again, not Wagner.
“Everybody’s acting like he came out of never showing that before,” he said. “I know what he’s capable of doing, because he shoots the ball in my eyehole every day.”
Beilein said he might start experimenting more with having bigs Wagner and D.J. Wilson on the floor at the same time, when Donnal’s on the bench. And Beilein insisted that Ricky Doyle’s “not out of the picture, either,” though he’s played just two minutes in each of the last two games.
No rush for LeVert
Beilein said LeVert continues to make some progress, but is doubtful to return to action against Minnesota.
He said LeVert is doing some light shooting at practice, when he’s not doing rehab on his leg.
“We still have 13 games left,” Beilein said, of the Big Ten schedule. “This is still a long season and that’s why we’ve gotta look at this big picture and bring him along slowly.”
The concern is, when LeVert does return, can he be the player he was before the injury, when he was making Wooden watch lists?
Beilein, over the years, has seen injured players struggle to return to form, including Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary and, most recently, Zak Irvin.
“There’s usually a time that is very difficult,” Beilein said. “We know who he is, but I’m not expecting miracles coming back.”
If there’s a positive from LeVert’s absence, Beilein said, it’s that Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr. and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have raised their games.
Michigan will continue to explore ways to get Duncan Robinson open more from beyond the perimeter. He’s struggled to find the open looks in Big Ten play that he was getting in conference play, not that that’s a surprise, given the Big Ten is so physical.
“They’re not letting him get catches, they’re not letting him see the basket beyond NBA range,” Beilein said. “There’s other ways to get him open as people continue to guard him the same.
Robinson took eight 3’s on Sunday, but several weren’t good looks — and he missed six of them.
... Beilein’s goal for games is 10 and 10 — fewer than 10 turnovers and 10 or more made 3-pointers. The 13 turnovers against Iowa proved the difference in the game.
... Wagner on the difference between his season in Germany and this season: “It’s a charter flight now and I have homework to do.”
Minnesota at Michigan
Tip-off: 8:30 Wednesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Minnesota 6-12, 0-6 Big Ten; Michigan 13-5, 3-2
Outlook: The Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten game, but they’ve been scrappy at times, taking then-No. 1 Michigan State to overtime and hanging with Indiana last time out. ... Joey King (12.9 ppg) and Nate Mason (12.3) lead Minnesota on offense; Jordan Murphy averages 8.1 rpg and a block per game. ... Having just completed a brutally tough three-game stretch, Michigan’s next four opponents have combined for five Big Ten victories.