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Michigan’s D.J. Wilson a new man, especially on ‘D’

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
D.J. Wilson tries to block a shot against Kennesaw State.

Ann Arbor — It's not just the short-shorts that folks are noticing about D.J. Wilson these days.

It's his game, markedly improved, particularly on the defense end — and he's being rewarded with a spot in the starting lineup and some big-time minutes for Michigan basketball.

The junior forward averaged 6.1 minutes last season, mostly because he couldn't figure things out defensively. This year, he's averaging 25.6 minutes heading into Tuesday night's game against Texas (4-3) at Crisler Center.

"This is like almost a first year," Michigan coach John Beilein said Monday of Wilson, who played five games before suffering a season-ending knee injury as a freshman, putting him behind the curve and basically designating him for mop-up duty much of last season.

"How do I fight through this? I just missed a shot and I'm not coming out, or I just made a turnover and I'm not coming out. Those are things he's going to have to get accustomed to.

"He's grown by leaps and bounds, as you can see, but it's not going to be easy."

Wilson, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward from Sacramento, California, is averaging 7.0 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds as he's taken over a spot in the starting lineup, allowing guard Duncan Robinson to the move to a reserve role for Michigan (6-2) — quite the 3-point weapon coming off the bench.

A four-star recruit coming out of high school, Wilson's progress has been slow — frustratingly so, at times.

But as Beilein has said before, while we live in a "microwave society," where everybody wants what they want and want it now, it doesn't always work that way with every kid coming to play big-time college sports.

In fact, so often in basketball, the big jump occurs between the sophomore and junior seasons. Right on cue, D.J.

"I think so," senior Zak Irvin said. "Toward the end of my sophomore year, the game really started to slow down for me. Junior year, you really are able to learn the game a little bit more. I think that's what happens.

"He's taken all the constructive criticism we've given him and it's really paid off for him."

It's not to say Wilson is a finished product.

He still has lapses at times. The key is fighting through them, because, unlike last year, Beilein isn't nearly as trigger-happy in pulling him out of a game when he makes a mistake.

Defensively, specifically, is the key. That's the big reason he saw the floor so little last season — that and Beilein wasn't comfortable using him too much coming off an injury-shortened season, and given all the close games Michigan had, Beilein couldn't experiment much, either.

In last week's loss to Virginia Tech, Wilson fouled out. But most of those fouls occurred going for rebounds, not necessarily playing defense. In the last game against Kennesaw State, Wilson didn't play that well defensively.

Still, that's been more the exception than the rule for Wilson this year.

"He's always had the athleticism, but (not) the understanding and the timing on defense," Beilein said. "I can remember last year in a scrimmage, against a 3-point shooter, within a few minutes he hit three 3s," Beilein said. "He was on him, but he wasn't guarding him.

"Now he's learning to guard people when he's actually in there.”

More minutes for Simpson?

Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson is averaging only 9.4 minutes per game, but he could get a decent bump in Tuesday night's game against a Texas team that causes a lot of havoc on defense.

Senior Derrick Walton Jr. is going to get a workout in, and will need points to rest.

Simpson, by the way, said he's not concerned about his minutes. He acknowledged the game was a bit fast when he arrived on campus, but that it's slowed down in recent games.

"I wasn't coming in here trying to take Derrick's spot," Simpson said. "He's a great point guard."

Texas at Michigan

Kickoff: Tuesday, 9 p.m., Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV / radio: ESPN2 / WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Records: Texas 4-3, Michigan 6-2

Notes: The Longhorns are coming off a win over Alabama, after dropping three straight before that. ... Texas is coached by Shaka Smart, in his second year after a six-year run at VCU that included a trip to the Final Four. ... Sophomore guard Tevin Mack (6-7) leads the Longhorns in scoring, at 14 points a game, mostly off the bench. ... Texas, with its swarming defense, forces 12.6 turnovers per game.

Twitter @tonypaul1984