The Detroit News' Bob Wojnowski and James Hawkins talk about Michigan's play heading into the postseason and preview this week's Big Ten tournament in New York. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan junior center Moritz Wagner doesn’t care much for individual accolades.
So, when the Big Ten unveiled its postseason awards on Monday night, Wagner didn’t have any hard feelings when he was named to the All-Big Ten second team by the league’s coaches and media.
But Wagner did take exception with one category: The All-Big Ten defensive team.
The reason? That team didn’t include a single Wolverine despite Michigan ranking No. 1 in the Big Ten and eighth in the nation, as of Monday, in scoring defense at 63.4 points per game.
The Wolverines also lead the league in turnover margin (plus-2.8) and forced the fifth-most turnovers (208) in conference play. Even in advanced metrics, Michigan ranks 11th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (95.3 points), which measures points allowed per 100 possessions.
Add it all up and the glaring omission didn’t make much sense to Wagner.
“That's something I have a chip on the shoulder with,” Wagner said Tuesday as the team readies to head to New York for this week’s Big Ten tournament.
“That is something I'm mad about because I think Zavier Simpson deserves that and Muhammad (-Ali Abudr-Rahkman) as well. But it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. We have that chip on our shoulder.”
Michigan coach John Beilein echoed Wagner and said he voted for both Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman for the All-Big Ten defensive team.
However, Beilein was particularly perplexed that Simpson, the feisty point guard who continually sets the tone for the defense and is arguably one of the top on-ball defenders in the Big Ten, was passed over on a team that includes Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr., Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., Purdue’s Dakota Mathias and Penn State’s Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins.
“I'm disappointed,” Beilein said. “I think that (Simpson) has had a huge impact on our team. If there's five better defenders in the league, the other coaches must’ve seen them because I didn't see it. But if the other coaches saw it, that's what the vote is.
“Both of those guys, I think that (our) defensive backcourt was really good. Now are we basing it on steals or are we just basing it on locking down some really good players? Muhammad and Zavier have been able to do (both).”
Beilein just has to point back to Michigan’s final two regular-season games to prove his point about how vital Simpson has been.
Simpson hounded Penn State’s Tony Carr, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, last week and held him to five points on 2-for-7 shooting with two turnovers in the first half. While Carr finished the game with 21 points, he needed 18 shots to get there and some of that production came after Michigan switched to a zone defense.
Then against Maryland on Saturday, Simpson limited Cowan to five points with 2-for-5 shooting in 19 minutes in the first half. Cowan tacked on 12 second-half points but that came after the game was well decided and Michigan led by as much as 32 with roughly 19 minutes to go.
Regardless, Beilein said he hopes his team — not just Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman — uses the snub as motivation and feels like it has something to prove in Thursday’s second-round game against the winner of tonight’s No. 12 Iowa and No. 13 Illinois at Madison Square Garden.
“It's crazy,” freshman guard Jordan Poole said. “I think that we're still not getting the respect that we deserve and I feel like we're going to take that personal.
“We’re definitely a team effort team. There’s a lot of individual stats that you get, but I feel like collectively as a group, we're probably as close-knit as anybody else and being able to have that is tough.”
Michigan has shown throughout the season just how gritty and stout its defense can be while feeding off Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman. And that won’t change anytime soon, no matter if any of the Wolverines receive any recognition or not.
“We see ourselves as a defensive team,” Wagner said. “We're trying to get stops together and rely on each other. We don't really care about (all-league) teams or awards or anything like that. We haven't been all year so why now?”
MICHIGAN VS. IOWA/ILLINOIS
Tip-off: 2:30 Thursday, Madison Square Garden, New York
TV/radio: BTN/950 AM
Records: Michigan 24-7, 13-5 Big Ten; Iowa 13-18, 4-14; Illinois 14-17, 4-14
Outlook: Michigan will look to become the first No. 5 seed to win the conference tournament and join Michigan State (1999-2000) and Ohio State (2010-11) as the only teams to repeat as champions.