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FILM: Northwestern has to slow Moritz Wagner to beat Michigan

The Wildcats will have their hands full with a streaking team and its sharp-shooting big man.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan has mo — as in momentum — having won five of its last six, a streak that includes a 31-point pounding of Michigan State and impressive wins over Wisconsin and, most recently, Purdue. After a lifeless loss at home against Ohio State on February 4, the Wolverines have looked like a completely different team over the past few weeks.

Michigan also has Moe — as in Moritz Wagner — an endlessly talented 6-foot-11, 240-pound sophomore forward out of Germany who has averaged over 16 points per game during the Wolverines’ impressive run. He has scored over 20 points twice and has failed to reach double digits just once. In his last outing, Wagner scored 24 points against the Boilermakers, 20 of which came in a first half in which his team outscored the Big Ten leaders 45-30.

What makes Wagner so good is his incredible versatility. He’s a master of the pick-and-pop, and with the range to shoot from behind the arc — he’s shooting over 42 percent from deep this year — he’s nearly impossible to defend in those situations because Michigan has so many talented guards who can score or find the open man if the opposing defense respects Wagner too much. But Wagner is no one-trick pony; he’s willing to put the ball on the floor no matter where he catches it to attack to basket.

The aforementioned Purdue game showed all of those strengths. Here’s what Wagner brings to the floor.

(NOTE: All video courtesy of BTN2Go)

The pick-and-pop

When executed correctly and with the right personnel, the pick-and-pop is the hardest two-man game to defend. If the guard can shoot well enough, he can score off the immediate ball screen. If the guard is quick enough, he can get to the hole against a bigger, slower defender. And if the opponents have to respect that, they have no chance of recovering in time to get to the screener who pops open.

In the example below, you see the quandary the Boilermaker defense is in. Xavier Simpson, a quick point guard and former Northwestern target, does a fantastic job keeping his dribble alive as Caleb Swanigan extends his switch far away from Wagner. A couple of possessions earlier, Simpson had beaten Swanigan to the hole off a hesitation move, so Purdue’s star big man was wary of the Wolverine backup point guard’s speed. As Ryan Cline (No. 14) desperately tries to get back to Simpson, there’s no one near Wagner, who sinks an open triple after Simpson’s dribble draws two defenders with him. It’s simple basketball, and with the obvious respect Swanigan has to give Simpson, it’s an easy bucket for the big German, who already has his feet set and is ready to fire by the time the ball hits his hands.

A similar situation unfolds again just a minute later. Derrick Walton Jr., the team’s leading scorer and one of the conference’s best players, is more than capable with the ball in his hands. If you leave him, he’ll get to the basket or stick a jumper. If you leave Wagner, he’ll do this:

Wagner has hit at least two triples in four of his last five games, and he had four against the Boilermakers.

Off the bounce

After scoring the opening basket of the game on a beautiful play design, Wagner shows his ability to score off the bounce. He has the ball-handling skill and the craftiness to get by opponents by putting it on the hardwood. There aren’t a lot of 6-foot-11 human beings who can do this.

A few possessions later, Wagner shows how he can simply torture opponents with a fantastic array of jab steps and hesitation moves before once again scoring on Swanigan. He makes the Big Ten Player of the Year favorite look foolish and puts him a half-step behind before finishing over him as if he weren’t even there. It’s not necessarily bad defense. It’s better offense.

In the post

Though Wagner is very much a face-up big man, his abilities in the post are considerable, especially given the fact that when he catches it on the block and faces the basket, defenders must be wary that he’ll simply shoot over them. But he can also go into his bag of tricks, as he does here. Wagner faces up and rips the ball through, puts a couple of powerful dribbles on the floor, gets into Swanigan’s chest, spins, uses a step through and then finishes with his left hand. And no, it’s not even close to a travel — you’ll notice no one on the Purdue bench even motions for one — because Wagner does such a great job of keeping his pivot foot and using it as an extension of his body to create space.

So if you’re sitting there with your jaw agape, wondering how Northwestern will limit the versatile big man, you’re not alone. Wagner is incredibly skilled and fits in well with the recent emergence of big men who can shoot and handle the rock. Walton recently said that Wagner thinks he’s Kevin Durant. The German’s size, relative quickness, shooting and ball-handling bring fellow Europeans like Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis to mind when looking for upside comparisons.

The bigger issue for Northwestern, though, isn’t how good he is, but how Chris Collins and the Wildcats will limit him on offense, because he’ll be a tough matchup for anyone. Dererk Pardon is a good individual defender and rim protector, but he’s suited to defend traditional big men, and Wagner is anything but. Pardon may be better suited for D.J. Wilson, a 6-foot-10 big who can also shoot the three but does it less often — 78 attempts compared with 90 — and at not quite the same success rate: 38.5 to 42.2 percent. Sanjay Lumpkin is an outstanding defender at the four position, but Wagner has a half-foot on Northwestern’s fifth-year senior. We’ve seen Lumpkin defend bigger players before, though, so it’s certainly not out of the question. There’s also the possibility of the lanky Vic Law getting some time on him because of Wagner’s guard-like skill set. But that takes away the team’s best individual perimeter defender from matching up against Walton or another of Michigan’s talented guards. Whatever the Wildcats go with, it will be a very difficult task.

But there’s also reason for hope. Wagner scores 15.9 points per game at home in conference play and just 10.3 on the road in conference play. Additionally, the Wildcats almost certainly have an advantage against Wagner’s defense. The Wolverines’ big man yanks down just 4.1 rebounds per game, and his defensive rebounding percentage of 15.1 is very poor. Pardon, on the other hand, has an offensive rebounding percentage of 12.6, good for 76th in all of Division I, so expect to see him active on the boards early and often. Wagner is also prone to fouling. He has fouled out three times in his past seven games, including two occasions in which he fouled out in under 30 minutes of action. Wagner is feisty defensively, but he’s certainly not the strongest guy, and his overzealousness can cost him. It might be wise to feed Pardon early and often. It will never be possible to stop a guy like Wagner on the offensive end completely, but limiting his role by getting him in foul trouble and reducing his minutes could be a good place to start if Northwestern plans to pull off the win.