March Madness isn’t foreign to UM’s Wagner

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Moritz Wagner puts up a shot during Michigan's practice in Dayton on Tuesday.

Dayton, Ohio -- Moritz Wagner knows all about March Madness, which, he says, actually is kind of a big deal back home in Germany.

OK, it was a big deal to a lanky teenager who loved filling out brackets, even though he acknowledges he had no idea why he was picking who he was picking.

And when the games began, Wagner would be up at 3 a.m., even on school days, to take it all in.

Now, he can take it all in, as a Michigan player.

"I was very nervous," Wagner said of watching the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday. "Because I really wanted to make the tournament.

"I felt like this team deserved it. I was just very happy and relieved, and it finally happened."

It happened, in no small part, thanks to Wagner, who played 16 minutes and made the most of them in Michigan's paramount victory over Indiana in the Big Ten semifinals.

That was the victory that got Michigan (22-12) into a First Four game Wednesday against Tulsa at the University of Dayton.

"He's ending the season, I think, in a positive direction," said coach John Beilein.

Tulsa OK with critics who question NCAA credentials

Wagner, 18, has been a fascinating story since he committed to the Wolverines.

He arrived on campus over the summer, with many suspecting he would redshirt, which would give him time to learn the American college basketball game -- and add some bulk to his 6-foot-10, 225-pound frame.

But Beilein said the heck with it, and played Wagner in the opener against Northern Michigan.

The minutes came and went for Wagner, who saw his fair share of time in non-conference play, but rarely in Big Ten play, unless Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle were in early foul trouble.

That's why it was so stunning when he came into the game against Indiana last Friday, less than seven minutes in, and stayed on the court for nearly five, making one drive to the basket that earned him a couple free throws. He made both.

Wagner came back in with 3:41 left in the opening half, and 35 seconds later, he hit a 3-pointer to put Michigan up by a point.

'Always ready'

In all, Wagner’s 16 minutes were his most since Youngstown State back in December, and he scored seven points, his first points at all since Nebraska in January.

Turns out, Doyle had a right ankle injury, and after some early minutes, it was clear he wasn't 100 percent.

"I'm always ready every game," Wagner said. "I have that certain psyche that I expect to help the team, if it's on the bench or on the court. I was prepared."

Beilein has been questions about how he handled Wagner’s minutes this season. Michigan, though, didn't have the luxury of experimenting with extended minutes for Wagner, because the Wolverines -- as proven at season's end -- could afford no slip-ups against teams they should beat.

He did get 23 minutes in the nice road win over North Carolina State on Dec. 8, but only had significant minutes again against patsies Delaware State (80-33) and Youngstown State (105-46) -- until Indiana.

"He's going through what most freshmen (go through)," Beilein said. "And with his body growing, I think when the Big Ten hit him, the bodies in the Big Ten were difficult for him to play defensively. You are who you can guard. And he was really having issues with that early. And as he has gotten more comfortable with it in practice, we were more willing to put him in these last few games.

"I think this season has been a great learning experience for him."

Wagner is very athletic despite his height but has had deer-in-the-headlights experiences on defense.

There's also the issue of not knowing how to respond appropriately to officials’ calls. He does so vocally, and with animation.

Against Indiana, Derrick Walton Jr. had to get in his face multiple times and tell him to chill out.

"I'm still intimidated," Wagner said, laughing, as Walton, in the next locker, flashed a sly grin. "I tell him that every day. Nobody ever screamed at me during a game like that. Only thing I said, 'It's OK, Derrick, you're good, you're right, you're right.'"

Was Walton too tough on him?

"Sometimes," he said, with a grin. "Yeah."

Making strides

Wagner, though, loves it.

"Definitely," said the kid they call Mo Weasley. "It feels good to have someone who picks you up in situations like that. I obviously need help, mindset wise. I appreciate that."

Wagner's energy, enthusiasm and outgoing nature -- he's got a smile that seems to stretch from Taylor to Tawas -- is a welcome addition for Michigan, which has its share of quiet, reserved guys. On the bench, Wagner is the first one up to celebrate a play.

Michigan players and coaches gather at midcourt during Tuesday's practice in Dayton.

But on the court, those antics could become an issue down the road. That's why Walton has stepped in.

Beilein calls it a "European thing."

"You watch soccer, the whole deal, it’s every foul," Beilein said. "Yeah, every foul, there's drama. We talked to him a long time about taking the drama out of his game."

It's a work in progress, to be sure.

Just like Wagner's game, of which Beilein has big visions for down the road -- probably as early as next year, when Michigan could have a frontcourt of senior Donnal, junior Doyle, sophomore Wagner and freshman Austin Davis.

That's promising, and exciting. Just like March Madness. The Indiana game was special. Friday should top that.

"It was definitely fun," Wagner said of the win over the Hoosiers. "I watch the video of Kam (Chatman's) shot every day.

"To be on the court for that tournament, seeing the ball going through and actually being under the basket, was a ridiculous thrill."

How long the thrill of this season lasts remains to be seen. Most don't give Michigan much of a chance beyond Tulsa, or maybe Notre Dame.

Wagner, though, knows you can't put anything in stone.

"That's the beauty of the tournament," said Wagner. "That you never know. Crazy things can happen, and I'm just excited to be a part of it."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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