Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski and reporter James Hawkins preview game with Oregon.
Kansas City, Mo. — As a player and a personality, Moritz “Moe” Wagner is hard to define and hard to contain. He’s loquacious and fearless, loud and likeable.
He’s a 6-foot-11 forward-center-shooter who plays basketball with a boisterousness you don’t often see at Michigan. In that way, he’s a symbol of this fun run, as the Wolverines learn when to unleash and when to rein in.
Wagner still is learning, but when unleashed, he’s as dynamic as anyone.
Derrick Walton Jr. is the on-court leader and Zak Irvin is the quiet leader. When unplugged, Wagner is the generator, a live-wire act that’s not an act, at all. Because his passion is real and his energy is boundless, teammates embrace the big German — when they’re not busy asking him to pipe down.
“Sometimes we have to tell him in the huddle, ‘Can you just be quiet here?’” coach John Beilein said, with a laugh. “I think we have a good enough bond where he calms down quick enough. He gets mad at himself a lot and that can carry onto the next play, and that’s the sort of thing we’re always dancing with.
“But I don’t want to rob him of his energy and passion.”
If Wagner picks up early fouls, he often gets frustrated. That can’t happen tonight, when Michigan faces speedy, explosive Oregon in the Sweet 16. If the Wolverines have one major edge, it should be inside, where Wagner and D.J. Wilson have been dominant at times, and the Ducks are without injured star Chris Boucher.
‘We love it’
When Wagner is fully engaged, he’s smiling and tongue-wagging and slipping past defenders to the basket. During Michigan’s seven-game winning streak, he has been occasionally quiet, but in the victory over Louisville, he put on a show, scoring 26 on 11-for-14 shooting.
His exuberance is reminiscent of Mitch McGary, another rambunctious center who helped Michigan reach the 2013 national championship game. Wagner is so versatile, the Wolverines can’t even settle on a nickname. He’s the German Shepherd, courtesy of Beilein. He’s Slow Mo, courtesy of freshman Xavier Simpson. He’s Mo Buckets (“I’ll take that one,” he said). Most recently he’s the European Flame-Thrower, which he really likes. Personally, I’d suggest Mo Better Blue, but I’m afraid the reference is dated.
“From the first time he stepped on campus, he’s shown a lot of energy, a lot of emotion and we love it,” Irvin said. “He gets everybody going by screaming, yelling, waving his arms, clapping his hands. He’s great for the team.”
Wagner looks like a guy having the time of his life, desperate to prolong it as long as he can. In less than two years, he has grown from a gawky 210-pounder to a 235-pound 19-year-old. As a freshman, he played sparingly but showed flashes in the postseason. Now he averages 12.2 points and shoots very well — 56.9 percent from the field, 40.9 percent on 3-pointers.
Wagner is becoming something of an international star, at times the talk of the Tournament. He finds it odd because he thinks he hasn’t changed — only the stage has changed.
“It’s kind of absurd, to be honest,” Wagner said Wednesday. “I stay off social media as much as I can, even though it’s hard. It’s crazy the way people go nuts about it. All I did was layups, shoot a three, make some free throws. It’s what I’ve been doing all year, it just wasn’t on a national stage.”
He gets texts from everywhere, especially from Berlin, where family and friends gather to watch Michigan games live. That means a midnight tip-off for the Oregon game in Germany, where Wagner was a known commodity before he came to the U.S. as a curiosity.
Beilein, on a tip from a scouting acquaintance in Europe, was pretty much the only major-college coach to pursue Wagner, a young star who seemed destined to turn pro in Germany. His parents had brought him to the U.S. before and he was intrigued by the college life, and sounds happy with his choice.
Because of his unique skill set, there will be talk of rising NBA stock if this run continues. Wagner shrugged and said, “I block that away, it’s not the right time to worry about that.”
When you hear him explain why he came to Ann Arbor, you begin to understand his joy.
“First of all, I always wanted to be a kid somehow,” said Wagner, whose parents have flown over to see him play several times. “As a pro you have to be grown up already, there’s money and contracts. And the second reason is, I always wanted to try out something new. So I probably would’ve hated myself the rest of my life if I didn’t try this opportunity.”
‘I just do my thing’
Since the paths between Wagner and Beilein intersected two years ago, each has been enlightened by the other. Beilein has gained an appreciation for dealing with a free-spirited outlier, Wagner is discovering how to tone down. When he loses focus on defense or fails to rebound, he sits, and he gets it.
Michigan's Moritz Wagner on playing with emotion.
“I’m still in the process of learning how to control my emotions,” Wagner said. “Being positive, you can help the team. Negative emotions can take energy and be dangerous to the team chemistry. One of my youth coaches used to say I’m somebody who sees the basketball court as a stage. That’s just me, it’s a huge part of my game and I try to use it to my advantage.”
The NCAA Tournament is like a greenhouse for young players — under the right conditions, with the light shining, growth can be rapidly accelerated. Kids become savvy adults before you realize it, even if they resist it.
Wagner sports a scruff of hair on his chin, as do a few others, after Beilein loosened up and let players grow “playoff beards.” You barely notice it as they conduct interviews, periodically interrupted by teammates making jokes.
Wagner always has been told he’s too emotional, going back to grade-school basketball in Germany, where he’d get overly exuberant and commit fouls. That’s still who he is and who he likes to be, even as he tries to change without changing too much.
“Sometimes I watch our games and I see myself and I’m embarrassed or ashamed — what am I doing?” he said. “Why did I hype the crowd up there? I don’t do it consciously, it’s just my nature. Sometimes (opposing teams) think I’m ridiculous, but I don’t care, honestly.
“I just do my thing.”
He’s doing it by stages, on increasingly larger stages, just like his teammates, one enthusiastic step at a time.
Michigan vs. Oregon
What: Michigan vs. Oregon in a semifinal of the Midwest Region.
When: 7:09, Thursday
TV/radio: CBS/WWJ 950
Seedings/records: No. 7 Michigan 26-11, No. 3 Oregon 31-5
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final against Kansas-Purdue winner