San Antonio — The Wolverines have been reminded, politely and repeatedly, that they’re the villains here, that their story must end for the Loyola-Chicago tale to continue. Moritz Wagner’s tongue-wagging swagger is the symbol of it, and he gets it, sort of.
After all, Loyola-Chicago is part-fable, part-force, the little 11 seed known more for its 98-year-old chaplain, Sister Jean, than its coach whose name you have to look up (Porter Moser). Wagner is the 6-foot-11 tower who can shoot and drive, agitate and invigorate, and does it so expressively, he always draws attention.
So when told he’ll be framed as the bad guy, fair or not, Wagner did what he does often. He smiled and joked.
“What else is new?” Wagner said Friday, on the eve of the Final Four matchup. “At a certain point when you realize people don’t like you, for whatever reason, you might as well just embrace it and have fun with it. Sometimes I don’t understand it, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
This is all new for Loyola-Chicago, and sort of new for Michigan. But it’s not new for Wagner, who almost certainly will be a focal point tonight. With his playful demeanor and thoughtful manner, he’s just about the least-villainous villain you can imagine. But he indeed might be the one guy, on either team, who determines which story gets to keep unfolding.
The Ramblers say they haven’t seen anyone like Wagner — dangerous from the 3-point line and in the paint — during their romp to a 32-5 mark. Moser and players admit Wagner occupies a significant chunk of their game-planning, a unique test for their disciplined defense.
The challenge for Loyola-Chicago? Find a way to defend Wagner without dragging their 6-9, 260-pound freshman, Cameron Krutwig, too far from the basket.
The challenge for Wagner? Take control, if possible, while staying under control. When he gets rambunctious, he gets fouls. When he gets fouls, he gets a seat on the bench, and Michigan’s efficient offense shrinks.
“Don’t get emotionally drunk,” Wagner said. “Certain things you can’t control, but you can control your attitude and effort and how smart you play. If you have that under control, you’re all set.”
‘Five guys to stop him’
It’s not that easy for the exuberant German, who says he’s barely been able to sleep during the Tournament. His parents, Axel and Beate, arrived from Berlin and will be at the game, and if the moment can possibly get larger, it just did.
The Wolverines have won 13 straight partly because they don’t rely on one player to score. Sometimes they’re at their best when Charles Matthews is rolling, or when Duncan Robinson is hot off the bench. Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are the defensive constants, which leaves Wagner as a bit of a wildcard.
In Michigan’s 99-72 romp over Texas A&M, Wagner was scorching, shooting 8-for-12. In the 58-54 slugfest against Florida State to reach the Final Four, he was 0-for-7 on 3-pointers.
“It’ll take all five guys to stop him, not just me,” said Krutwig, the Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year. “I don’t think we’ve seen a guy like him all year.
“We’ve got some coverages we’ve been working on that we haven’t really done before. One thing coach has been stressing, you can’t go for his shot fake, because once he gets you in the air, he’s going right by you.”
It’s a rare difference between these teams, who are far more similar than their seeds and histories suggest. Don’t buy the notion the Ramblers are outmanned, and please don’t repeat this line about their chances of winning: Slim and nun. (Profusely, I apologize).
Both teams are dominant defensively and remarkably balanced. Every Loyola-Chicago starter is shooting at least 40 percent on 3s, led by MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer, who’s hitting 45 percent. Well, every starter except Krutwig, who has never attempted a 3-pointer.
The perimeter is a strange new place for him, the void that Wagner could exploit. He’s been a fascinating figure since arriving in Ann Arbor three years ago, after John Beilein completed a semi-secret journey to Germany to land him. The tale has been oft-told, of how a coaching intermediary alerted Beilein to the skilled big kid who was contemplating whether to sign with a German team or take a shot at college basketball in the U.S.
After some miscommunication — Beilein’s return email got caught in Wagner’s spam file for a couple weeks — the connection was made, and now the story is nearly complete. Wagner said he first became intrigued by college basketball watching Michigan play in the 2013 Final Four. He briefly considered turning pro last season, but the Final Four remained a lure. He doesn’t want to talk about his future plans now because he’s having too much fun, but if this is his last run (as many expect), it’s been a wild one, and an occasionally bumpy one.
‘Why do they hate me?’
Beilein has harped on Wagner’s tendency to commit cheap fouls, and even had him clutch tennis balls in practice to keep his hands off the guy he’s guarding. Wagner speaks fine English, but language can cause confusion when he gets frustrated with officials, which leads to some interesting sideline conversations.
“He calms himself down in the timeouts,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “He talks in German, and we let him calm down.”
“He enters into third person, and starts talking to Moe,” the coach said. “When he starts talking to Moe, we’re quiet and let him talk to himself.”
Moe talking in German to Moe is part of a buoyant personality, and during games, it can feature the full gamut of facial expressions – outrage, disbelief, smirking – that can be, ahem, misconstrued by opponents.
If it bothered the likable Wagner for a while, it doesn’t any longer.
Well, at least he says it doesn’t, although he probably didn’t think it would follow him all the way to the biggest stage.
“I remember a game, at halftime I walked off and asked coach, ‘Why do they hate me so much?’” Wagner said.
“I mean, I’m not trying to make people hate me. I’m just out there having fun, expressing myself, that’s just me. I do it in practice too. I’m not trying to be that guy necessarily, it just happens that way.”
The Wolverines will need it to happen against the Ramblers. They’ll need plenty against an experienced, versatile opponent, against forces seen and unseen, in a game between teams that look eerily similar, with one loud, demonstrative difference.
Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago
Tip-off: 6:09 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/radio: TBS/WWJ 950
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5
Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.