As Michigan coach John Beilein stood in the corner of a jubilant locker room Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena, he couldn’t help but voice one of his concerns.
“We’ve been playing without Moe (Wagner) a lot lately,” Beilein said of the junior center after Michigan stunned Houston on a last-second 3-pointer in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
It has become a recurring problem over the past month. But it could turn into a massive one Thursday in Los Angeles when third-seeded Michigan (30-7) takes on No. 7 seed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
The Aggies (22-12) boast an imposing front line and one of the premier big men tandems in the nation in 6-foot-10 junior center Tyler Davis, an All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, and 6-10 sophomore forward Robert Williams, the co-SEC defensive player of the year and a projected first-round draft pick.
Behind Davis and Williams are five others on the roster who stand at least 6-9, including fellow starter and 3-point threat DJ Hogg (6-9) and key reserve Tonny Trocha-Morelos (6-10).
That means having Wagner — one of three Wolverines who is at least 6-10 along with centers Jon Teske and Austin Davis — on the floor will be paramount to combat an Aggies team that ranks third nationally in total rebounds per game (41.68), fifth in blocked shots per game (six), 10th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency and 11th in defensive field-goal percentage (40.1 percent).
Texas A&M used its interior size to dismantle No. 2 seed North Carolina, 86-65, Sunday and hand Tar Heels coach Roy Williams his most lopsided NCAA Tournament loss of his career to advance to the West Region semifinal.
“We’ve beaten people up over the years and the tables were reversed,” Williams said after the game. “I’d say probably this is only game where somebody just dramatically handled us inside or maybe at a higher level.
“What they did to us inside early in the game shocked us even though we knew they were good.”
The Tar Heels had no answer for the Aggies, who relentlessly snatched rebounds and aggressively swatted away eight shots all while controlling the paint.
“We just stuck to the game plan, played to our strengths,” said Davis, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds to help oust the reigning national champion. “We know we have the advantage on the inside with most teams. We do what we do every day — go to the war on the inside and eat glass.”
The message has been sent. And if Michigan is going to do battle, it’s going to need Wagner to be up to the challenge.
In five of the past 10 games, though, Wagner has played below his season average of 27 minutes per game. At the Big Ten tournament earlier this month, he played 17 minutes or fewer in the opener against Iowa and title game against Purdue to lowlight the recent stretch.
The main culprit? Foul trouble. He has been whistled at least three times the past 11 games and has racked up four fouls in each of the last three contests in Michigan’s biggest games of the season.
“Obviously foul trouble is a pain in the butt,” Wagner said. “I think we just got to get better as unit. We had trouble (against Houston), all of us. We take ourselves out of rhythm offensively as well as defensively and put them on the line. We got to stop that stuff. You got to adjust to that.
“It’s crazy how good we can be if we do all these things right.”
Michigan has been able to get by without Wagner playing his normal share during its 11-game win streak, particularly last week in a pair of ugly victories in Wichita, Kan. He was a nonfactor on the offensive end against Montana with five points and six rebounds in 32 minutes, and registered 12 points and seven boards in 23 minutes against Houston.
Despite the subpar outings, Beilein dismissed the notion that Wagner, the team's leading scorer (14.2 points), has struggled so far in the NCAA Tournament, where he’s shooting 46.7 percent but has only attempted 15 shots.
“People are geared up with him again,” Beilein said Monday on WDFN. “If you’re going to take one thing away from us and you’re going to switch screens and you’re not going giving help off him, it’s going to be hard for him to score points. And people load up all the time.
“It’d be no different than taking a primarily inside guy and double-teaming him every time. He’s not going to have a big day but others will. When they do that, they allow us to spread people out and then other people can step up and score.”
Wagner admits he wasn’t at his best in Wichita and foul trouble prevented him from getting into a groove. But when that happens, he said he focuses on impacting the game in other ways.
“Sometimes you don’t score. Sometimes you have weekends like that,” Wagner said. “My goal is always to bring something to the table even when it doesn’t work offensively. Whether that’s energy, leadership, that’s what you got to do, man. It doesn’t matter how much you score.”
Come Thursday, though, Michigan will need Wagner to rise to the occasion in — and against — its biggest test yet.
TEXAS A&M FRONTCOURT
DJ Hogg, junior, forward
Ht./wt.: 6-foot-9, 215 pounds
Season averages (31 games): 11.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, one block, 41.3 percent field-goal percentage
NCAA Tournament averages (two games): 9.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 35.3 percent field-goal percentage
Notable: Hogg leads the Aggies with 64 made 3-pointers and ranks second on the team as a 38.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc. He’s made at least three deep balls in 12 games this season, including twice in the past three games.
Robert Williams, sophomore, forward
Ht./wt.: 6-foot-10, 241 pounds
Season averages (29 games): 10.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 62.7 percent field-goal percentage
NCAA Tournament averages (two games): 10.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, two blocks, 75 percent field-goal percentage
Notable: Williams is a disruptive force on the interior and was named the co-SEC defensive player of the year. He also led the SEC in rebounding and has pulled down at least 10 boards each of the past three games. He’s projected to be the No. 14 pick in ESPN’s latest mock draft.
Tyler Davis, junior, center
Ht./wt.: 6-foot-10, 266 pounds
Season averages (34 games): 14.6 points, nine rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 58.2 percent field-goal percentage
NCAA Tournament averages (two games): 15 points, 12 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 68.4 percent field-goal percentage
Notable: The All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection has 12 double-doubles this season, including a 14-point, 15-rebound effort against Providence in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Davis finished a rebound shy of collecting his second straight with 18 points and nine rebounds in a second-round win over North Carolina.
Michigan vs. Texas A&M
Tip-off: 7:37 p.m. Thursday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 30-7, No. 7 seed Texas A&M is 22-12
Next up: Winner advances to Elite Eight on Saturday vs. Gonzaga/Florida State winner
FIVE TEXAS A&M FACTS
■ Sophomore Robert Williams, who averages 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, is considered a first-round NBA draft pick.
■ Texas A&M is 11th in field-goal defense nationally at 40.1 percent.
■ Five players for the Aggies average in double-figures scoring, led by Tyler Davis at 14.6.
■ Texas A&M went 11-1 in the non-conference portion of its schedule and was ranked No. 5 in the AP poll in December.
■ The Aggies were one-and-done in the SEC tournament, losing to Alabama, 71-70.