SAN ANTONIO — Brother, it’s scary to think what the Michigan Wolverines could pull off with Moe Wagner and Charles Matthews back in the fold next fall.
Annnnnnnnnd … a little scarier to think what it might look like without them.
“We had talent for being really young,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said after his Michigan squad fell 79-62 to Villanova in the 2018 NCAA Tournament national title game on Monday night. “We only had, like, one third-year player and two fourth-year players. Everybody else was really a novice because they never really played minutes. Just think about that.”
Although we can’t stop thinking about this, too: Departing seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson accounted for 42 percent of Michigan’s 3-pointers and 21 percent of the Wolverines’ points during the first five games of this mad, magical NCAA tourney run. Those are off the books now, no matter what.
Wagner, a 6-foot-11 junior, has an NBA decision to make. As does Matthews, a junior wing guard who transferred in from Kentucky. Strike their contributions from the Big Dance ledger, in addition to the aforementioned seniors, and the Wolverines would be without 76 percent of the treys from those five Bracketville victories and minus 75 percent of their scoring.
“I mean, this team is in great hands,” Robinson said. “You can’t put a value on this sort of experience [for] all of these young guys, and now they know what it’s like to get to this point. So hopefully, in the future … they’ll learn and grow from it.”
But the million-dollar question right now is how quickly they’ll have to. Wagner wouldn’t tip his hand as to his long-range plans when asked immediately after the ‘Nova loss, but the outlook is foggiest on that front.
‘You can’t put a value on this sort of experience [for] all of these young guys.’
— Michigan senior Duncan Robinson on the Wolverines’ prospects for 2018-19 and beyond
The giant German has already been through the process once, having declared for the NBA draft last year without hiring an agent. He announced on the day of the withdrawal deadline that he would return to Ann Arbor for his junior season. With a power forward’s frame, a wing guard’s shooting range and a stretch-4, Euro game, it’s a question of when — not if — the Berlin native elects to take the NBA plunge. NBADraft.net’s latest 2018 mock draft had Wagner taken with the 10th pick in the second round and as the No. 40 selection overall.
Matthews also demurred on the draft question late Monday night. At 6-foot-6, with a 6-9 wingspan and hops that made him hell on most shooting guards and smaller forwards, the Chicago native led all Michigan scorers in the Wolverines’ first five NCAA tourney contests (16.6 points per game).
Right now, though, his overall game has more holes than Wagner’s. He was so-so at best from beyond the arc — Matthews was 4 for 19 (.211) on treys in the Big Dance — and from the charity stripe, where he converted just 13 for 24 attempts (.542) in the NCAA tourney.
“We wouldn’t be here without [the seniors],” Matthews said. “We owe them our thanks and our gratitude and I’m pretty sure that they know they’re well-appreciated.”
Given the expected draft losses at Michigan State and Purdue, a Wolverines roster with Wagner and Matthews at the heart would likely be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten in 2018-19. But with only one of the two, or neither, in the fold, Michigan’s outlook could be fairly uncertain in a circuit that figures to be full of uncertainties — or wide open, if you like — come the autumn.
“Personally, for me, I definitely want to get back on this stage,” freshman forward Isaiah Livers said. “And I want to help lead. I want to do what Duncan and Muhammad are doing, even just as a sophomore.”
For better or for worse, Livers just might wind up getting that chance. And sooner rather than later.