RALEIGH, N.C. — A year ago, Duncan Robinson sat on the bench in street clothes as Michigan hosted Syracuse in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Moritz Wagner was in Berlin, Germany, playing his games for Alba Berlin, a semi-professional team. Robinson was a Division III transfer who was rumored to be a sharp shooter. He hadn’t proven a thing yet. Wagner was some far-off forward unknown to Wolverine fans.
Fast forward a year to the 2015 Big Ten/ACC Challenge in Raleigh, N.C., and Robinson and Wagner showed why they’re two of the most important pieces for the Michigan men’s basketball team this season.
With five minutes left in the first half against the Wolfpack on Tuesday, Robinson found himself open — again — from behind the arc and fired. Swish. With his fists by his side, the redshirt sophomore guard flexed, turned toward Michigan’s bench and flashed a Hey, did you all see that? smile to his teammates. It was the third time North Carolina State left him open from deep in the first frame, and the third time he hit.
“I know I’m surprised (they left him open), because if we we’re playing against a guy like Duncan, we would never leave him open,” said senior guard Caris LeVert. “That’s what we’d be preaching.”
In the second half, with Michigan’s once-15-point lead at just eight, Wagner caught a pass from LeVert, bodied his way to the rim, drew a foul and finished with a layup. The basket pushed the Wolverines back to a double-digit advantage, and the 6-foot-10 freshman forward stomped toward his teammates on the bench, shouted and pounded his chest.
It’s a role Wagner has embraced — not just the job of scoring but that of getting his teammates pumped up, too.
“Definitely, I think that’s kind of my thing, to give the team energy, and it’s what people ask me to do,” Wagner said. “I really enjoy that role and feel really comfortable with it.”
Added LeVert: “Since day one, Moe’s brought that energy and intensity. We knew he was like that. So for him to play like that in games, it’s amazing. Having him out there with that great energy, seeing him smiling and pump up the crowd, it’s awesome.”
Robinson transferred from Williams College — a small Division III school in Massachusetts — before last season, but due to NCAA transfer rules, he spent last season on the bench. He could practice with the team, but he couldn’t play in games. Now, in just seven games with the Wolverines, Robinson has established himself as Michigan’s top shooter and first guard off the bench. He’s shooting 57 percent from the field this year, and his 60-percent shooting percentage from beyond the arc ranks third in the country for players with at least 20 attempts.
“It’s deadly,” LeVert said of Robinson’s shooting. “When he hits a couple in a row, you want to look for him every time, every opportunity. And he just knocks them down.”
Unlike Robinson, Wagner didn’t join the Wolverines with a reputation for shooting, or much of anything for that matter. He didn’t commit until April and came in as the biggest question mark on the roster. Michigan coach John Beilein hyped him up before the season started and said he’d have some “wow” moments despite a big learning curve.
In his last three games, the “wows” have overshadowed the “ohs.” Since scoring 19 points against Charlotte in the Wolverines’ second game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Wagner has gone 15-for-19 from the field. He tallied eight points against the Wolfpack on Tuesday, and his 23 minutes were a personal NCAA high — he played 22 minutes combined in Michigan’s first four games.
In the Wolverines’ last three contests, Robinson and Wagner have produced 68 percent of Michigan’s scoring off the bench. And in the Wolverines’ first true road game at PNC Arena, Robinson and Wagner didn’t get distracted by the hype and the new setting. Robinson also played 23 minutes, and the two combined for 25 points to help Michigan claim its second straight Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup.
“Of course you feel a little bit excited before the game when you step into the gym and you shoot around,” Wagner said. “But as soon as you’re on the court, you’re just focusing on the game.”
That focus, from a high-energy European and a crisp-shooting transfer, could be key as Michigan kicks off conference play later this month.