ON A MEGABUS SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS — The Michigan men’s basketball team’s season began with Moritz Wagner set to be the focal point of the team.
The junior forward still is, especially on offense, as his ability to spread out opposing defenses gives the rest of the Wolverines room to operate.
But over the course of the year, through the ups and downs of a season that’s stretched far longer than anyone could have expected, Wagner has taken on both leading and supporting roles. In part, it’s a testament to Michigan’s offensive depth.
“If you watch Wagner,” said Wolverines coach John Beilein in Thursday’s press conference, “he’d have a monster of a game and then somebody else does it.”
Now, though, in the Final Four, on the biggest stage of any Michigan player’s career, Wagner will be more important than ever.
With any team the Wolverines play, the big-man matchup draws extra attention. If Michigan plays a team with a bruising, post-up five, people wonder whether Wagner can hang defensively or if the hulking opponent has the stamina to stick with Wagner when he’s on offense. If an opponent has a smaller, finesse big, the focus shifts to whether Wagner’s post-up game is good enough to capitalize on a rare size advantage.
Enter Loyola-Chicago’s Cameron Krutwig, Wagner’s matchup in Saturday’s game. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman who averages 10.3 points per game — 8.8 in the NCAA Tournament — presents an interesting matchup for Wagner.
Krutwig is quite possibly the least versatile defender on the Ramblers, and though he is crafty on the offensive end, he isn’t exactly the most skillful player.
It seems like a matchup that Wagner can take advantage of. On paper, he’s quicker and more skilled, but Krutwig has shown up in matchups where he seemed to have a disadvantage before.
Against Tennessee, in the Round of 32, Krutwig held Grant Williams, the co-SEC Player of the Year, to just 12 points in 34 minutes. Williams is more of the bruising type, but the point still stands that Krutwig can and has shown up in matchups when he wasn’t supposed to. So it isn’t like it’s going to be a cakewalk for Wagner.
If the Wolverines do beat the Ramblers to get into the title game, Wagner’s role will be just as pronounced whether they face Kansas or Villanova.
The Jayhawks have Udoka Azubuike at the five. He would probably be the most athletic matchup Wagner has seen all season. So there, it would be interesting to see if Wagner could put up enough of a fight against Azubuike to slow him down.
If Michigan were to get the Wildcats on Monday, it would face a team with very few weaknesses. If there is one, it’s that Villanova is a bit undersized. There again, the question is if Wagner can capitalize in the post to spur the Wolverines’ offense.
None of this is new, as Wagner has faced different matchups from different teams all season. Sometimes, like Beilein says, he’s taken advantage and been a dominant force. Sometimes he’s taken a backseat.
Wagner has even felt pressure before. Opposing teams gameplan for him, and opposing crowds boo him wherever he goes.
“They hate me everywhere,” Wagner said the day before Michigan’s first round matchup with Montana. “I know that. It’s fun. I’ve kind of embraced that role. And I’ve got to be honest, I’d hate myself, too. I just tell myself, ‘They hate you because I’m good.’ ”
But this is the Final Four. The attention paid towards particular matchups grows, and the blame placed on the loser of that matchup is more intense.
If Wagner doesn’t play his best, Michigan runs the risk of having its trip to San Antonio shortened. That could be said about the whole tournament, but with the grander stage and better competition, it’s true now more than ever.
For the Wolverines, it starts Saturday against Loyola. For Wagner, it starts with Krutwig.