Michigan basketball's senior class leaves substantial legacy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Michigan’s senior class wanted to leave a legacy.

Though this season ended abruptly with Thursday’s 69-68 Sweet 16 loss to Oregon, these seniors felt they made an impact.

“Obviously we didn’t want the season to end this early, but to win a Big Ten championship outright (in 2014), to win a Big Ten tournament championship, go to the Sweet 16 our senior year, I think there’s a lot of achievements these five seniors have had, I think that’s something we should be proud of,” U-M senior Zak Irvin said.

This will be the end of the road for Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr., having exhausted their four years, and likely for Mark Donnal, Sean Lonergan and Andrew Dakich, who will play their fifth years elsewhere.

Midway through their senior season, Walton and Irvin were questioned as leaders, with little tangible progress to show for their final three seasons.

But then they led one of the great finishes in program history, winning 12 of 14 games entering Thursday, including seven straight to win the Big Ten tourney title and the first two NCAA tournament games.

And in the final game of their careers, where the Wolverines were outplayed by Oregon, the seniors gave them a chance, scoring 23 of Michigan’s final 29 points.

“It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish,” Dakich said. “Derrick and Zak are the guys in this senior group that everyone’s going to talk about. But they were leaders and they just stuck with it, through adversity when it got bad when we weren’t performing the way people expected us to. We kind of proved people wrong in a sense.”

The chemistry of this team was unique, which is part of what the leaders felt fueled their late season run.

“It's the tightest bunch I've been around in all my years of playing basketball,” Walton said. “Just a very selfless group. I had the joy of being a part of it and being one of the leaders. Like I said, I wish we could have more games to play together because I think a couple minutes throughout the game we didn't show the type of team we were becoming and overall just thank them for allowing me to be part of such a great team.”

Three-point barrage: Part of Thursday’s Michigan frustration was the massive three-point barrage, as U-M took 31 threes, trying to shoot itself into the lead. After hitting 11 (35.5%), it wasn’t an ideal strategy.

“We shot 14 the first half.” U-M coach John Beilein said. “It's difficult in that defense to do that. Jordan Bell is a great defensive player (down low.) We tried to do that a little earlier with Mo (Wagner). Didn't work out so well. It's really hard to get that type of look that you would like to get. While we are growing in that area.

“I didn't think that was a strength against certain defenses, didn't feel it was today. Those 31 threes we took, about five or six of them we would like to have back. I don't know why we did it, but we did it and that's part of these guys growing as a team and growing as players.”

Turnovers: While Michigan missed a number of opportunities in the first half with an uncharacteristic seven turnovers – U-M had 10 combined in the previous two games – the second half was impressive the other way.

Each team only had one turnover in the 20-minute second half.

Michigan basketball players Derrick Walton Jr., left, and Zak Irvin talk with reporters March 22, 2017 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, DFP)

Michigan basketball's Moe Wagner shouldn’t go pro ... yet

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Moe Wagner shouldn’t go pro. Not now. Not after Thursday night at the Sprint Center.

Not after he fumbled and stumbled and shot his way to the bench, where he sat, helplessly, as his Michigan Wolverines lost a heartbreaker to Oregon in the Sweet 16.

Wagner will be in the NBA someday. That day shouldn’t come this summer. He is not ready. This loss reminded us of that.

Not that the loss is his fault. It is not. His frontline mate, and fellow emerging NBA prospect – D.J. Wilson – struggled at times, too.

Most obviously when Wilson missed a wide-open lay-up with eight minutes left in the game. That lay-up should’ve been a dunk. And maybe next year it will be. Which is why Wilson should consider sticking around Ann Arbor for another year as well.

He is not a certain first-round pick yet. Sure, it’s possible a general manager falls in love with him later this spring and takes a chance. It’s just as possible, however, that Wilson would be a second-round pick. And that’s too bad. Because he has first-round talent.

So does Wagner. In fact, Wagner might have lottery-pick potential. With another 15 pounds, another summer in the gym, another year in America learning and studying the culture of the game here, who knows how good he could be?

His coach, John Beilein, likened his sophomore center – Wagner is 6 feet 11 – to a blank canvas.

“He’s gonna be able to paint that canvas in any way he wants as he goes forward,” said Beilein. “He’s a tremendous student of the game. He’s so talented.”

Beilein is right, of course. Wagner is extraordinarily gifted. He’s also got a lot to learn. As Beilein will tell you. As Wagner will tell you, too.

That may be his most impressive gift: self-awareness.

“So many mistakes,” Wagner said. “Sometimes you just have a bad day,”

Both are true. Bad days happen … even to LeBron James. Some nights, the shots don’t fall. Thursday was that sort of night for Wagner.

But if we break down why, we weren’t just looking at a shooter on an off night. We were looking at a multi-dimensional big man with guard skills who struggled – at times -- to combat the physicality of his defender – Jordan Bell.

This is not a reason for Wagner to be embarrassed. Bell is the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year. He is 6 feet 9. He is strong and explosive and athletic.

The problem is, nearly every NBA team has a Bell. So when Wagner missed his first two shots on the low block against Bell’s strong-armed defense, well, it just got worse from there.

Wagner lost his rhythm. Or, more accurately, never found one.

“Shots weren’t falling,” he said.

And while that’s true – in the technical sense that shots weren’t falling – Wagner’s attempts weren’t rimming out, either. They weren’t hitting the actual rim. A couple of them, anyway.

Because he was worried about Bell from those opening couple of minutes. The early struggle rippled throughout the game, and Beilein had no choice but to pull Wagner down the stretch.

To his credit, Wagner said his defense was the bigger issue.

“How many points did we score? Sixty-eight? We average 74? To be honest, it’s not about our offense,” he said.

This is where Wagner’s relative lack of strength and bulk make a difference. This what NBA scouts most want to see him add. That and experience, and the ability to pull up off one hard dribble and knock down a jumper from the elbow.

That’s the next step for him on the court. Beyond that, he’s got about everything else. The long-range jumper. The cross-over. The post moves. The galloping runs to the rim.

He also has some fire. A lot of it, in fact. So much that his coaches occasionally have to throw a little water on him. This drive and desire and competitiveness are qualities scouts love, because they’re so hard to coach into a player.

The weight and footwork he can work on. He has the heart. You could hear that in the postgame locker room, as he stood – red-eyed -- and took questions for nearly 20 minutes, ever deferential to his seniors, owning his off night, talking about the journey and this team and how it was like a family.

“Losing always sucks,” he said.

The coaches told him to remember the feeling for next year. Not long after that, someone asked him what his plans were now that the season was finished.

“Well, I just lost 20 minutes ago,” he said. “I haven’t really thought about that. And I don’t really see a decision either. All that I’m worried about is my seniors, my staff. That’s the beauty of the off-season. It’s far away still. Not right now, I’m gonna reflect on this season.”

And reflect on his night. What he did. What he didn’t do. What he might have done.

Like his coach said, Wagner can be as good as he wants. All he has to do is keep painting.

At Michigan.

For one more year.

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