Michigan bigs Wagner, Teske cover in Livers’ absence

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Madison, Wis. — With freshman forward Isaiah Livers sidelined with a left ankle injury, Michigan coach John Beilein had to get creative with the minutes at the four.

It led to Beilein rolling out a lineup with two bigs on the floor — junior center Moritz Wagner and sophomore center Jon Teske — for the first time all season in Sunday’s 83-72 win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.

Following the under-12 media timeout in the first half, Wagner checked in for fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson, who got the start in Livers’ absence, at the four while Teske stayed at the five.

“That's a scary few minutes right there,” Beilein said. “We got this guy (Wagner) chasing guys around on the perimeter. They really did good. I think that we understand that there's some teams and this team (Wisconsin) would be one that it's a good matchup for us.”

According to Beilein, the move was more of a defensive decision and an attempt to find a way to slow down Wisconsin big man Ethan Happ, who finished with a season-high 29 points and shot 12-for-23 from the field.

“The whole idea was how are we going to keep Happ from getting 40 (points),” Beilein said. “We didn't do a great job of that. Are we going to double him? Are we going to fake double him? What are we going to do with him?

“(Wisconsin coach) Greg (Gard) does a great job and Bo (Ryan) did, as well, getting their best players these little 30-second rests. So, I was very cognizant of that and when we lost Isaiah Livers, we knew that (Wagner) might have to play some four. Now he's not getting more rest. I was very guarded with putting him out there for too many minutes.”

When Wagner subbed in for Robinson at the 11:44 mark, he joined redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews, grad transfer Jaaron Simmons, freshman guard Jordan Poole and Teske on the floor with Michigan ahead, 17-6.

By the time the brief stretch ended and Teske went back to the bench with 8:48 left before halftime, it was a marginal success. The Wolverines extended their lead to 24-12 on a 3-pointer from Simmons, two free throws from Teske and an offensive putback by Wagner, but gave up a three-point play to Happ and one of the Badgers’ seven made 3-pointers on a deep ball by Brevin Pritzl.

“It's kind of funny because you work so much together, but at the end of the day you're never on the court together. So, we kind of looked around and were like, 'Oh that's cool,’” said Wagner, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes before fouling out with 39 seconds left.

“Jon is a great player and it's a lot of fun. I think it's basically the same thing — just go do your thing. It doesn't necessarily change too much, especially against the offense, because their four and five is a similar player, too. It was fun.”

Beilein added playing two bigs at the same time could be seen more moving forward depending on the opponent’s personnel and how long it takes Livers to recover from the ankle sprain he suffered in Tuesday’s loss at Northwestern.

Beilein said Livers was pulled out of Saturday’s practice halfway through because he wasn’t moving any better, and was scratched from the lineup Sunday morning after he didn’t feel any better and was limping through the team’s walkthrough.

“Ankle injuries are funny. They can be a very short thing — and there's no major damage (for Livers) — but they can linger,” Beilein said. “We don't want it to linger.”

Ongoing quandary

Beilein continues to face a dilemma with sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, who hasn’t been able to shake his struggles at the free-throw line in late-game situations.

Trailing 71-60 and with Michigan in the bonus, Wisconsin resorted to the whack-a-Wolverine strategy with 3:09 remaining and sent Simpson to the line on back-to-back possessions.

Simpson missed the front end of the one-and-one both times and the Badgers were able to cut the deficit to eight before he was replaced by Poole for the final 2:07 of the game.

“I mean, he's got to make them some time,” Beilein said. “We'll still give him a couple chances and if he doesn't make them, all right, we have another plan. He's such a good defender so what do you trade-off for that?

“But he will make them. He made 84 out of 100 the other day at practice with me standing there. We thought we had some things corrected. Obviously, it wasn't.”

Slam dunks

Robinson snapped out of a recent long-range slump and finished a team-best 4-for-7 on 3-pointers against Wisconsin.

Over the previous four games, Robinson was 3-for-14 from beyond the arc.

“It felt good to see some go in,” he said. “Good passes by my teammates and I just tried to hit open ones and take good shots.”

...The Wolverines shot 56 percent (28-for-50) against the Badgers. It was just the second time in the past 10 games Michigan shot at least 45 percent from the field.

"We know it will correct itself and we got really good shooters on the team," Beilein said. "We got really good passers and it's going to correct at some time, but we had not played well (recently)."

…Michigan's 44 points scored in the first half was its most since it scored 48 at Iowa on Jan. 2.

…The 11-point win was Michigan’s first double-digit victory at the Kohl Center since Feb. 27, 1999.