After a 1-3 start in the Big Ten, the Michigan men’s basketball team went into its matchup against Nebraska last Saturday with a “championship game” mindset.
The Wolverines focused singularly on the challenges of their next game, and no other player embodied this attitude more than Moritz Wagner. The sophomore forward was invisible in Michigan’s prior game, a blowout loss at Illinois, scoring just six points, failing to grab a rebound in the first half and struggling mightily on defense. Wagner looked like a completely different player against the Cornhuskers. He scored a career-high of 23 points, grabbed six rebounds and made the defensive plays he didn’t against the Fighting Illini.
After hitting the reset button, Wagner and the rest of the Wolverines were able to bounce back, and earn a much-needed win against Nebraska. But the difficulty Michigan faces to replicate the result increases significantly, as the Wolverines will travel to the Kohl Center to take on a team with real championship pedigree in No. 17 Wisconsin.
“You couldn’t ask for a tougher team right now to go to,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But we at least go in there with a little bit of bounce in our step.”
The Badgers are expected to start four players from their two most recent Final Four rosters, but one of the most important matchups involves the one starter who didn’t play on them.
Redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ has been a pleasant surprise for Wisconsin the past two seasons. In replacing consensus All-American Frank Kaminsky in the Badgers’ starting lineup, Happ had big shoes to fill, but did well to establish his footing early in his college career.
Happ is not only an elite rebounder for his six-foot-10 frame — he currently ranks second in the Big Ten in rebounds — but is also second in the conference in steals and second on his team in assists per game too.
It’ll be up to Wagner to matchup with Happ and find success in the interior for Michigan to have any shot at pulling off the upset.
“He’s actually very impressive because I think he used to play the guard position when he was younger, and you can kind of see that in how he moves,” Wagner said. “It’s fun to watch and is a great challenge.”
Preventing Happ from scoring will be only one of the many challenges Wagner will face guarding the redshirt sophomore. Wisconsin operates a highly successful post-up offense when the ball is moved inside out.
The Wolverines struggled defending similar ball movement against Illinois, as the help defense Michigan needed to stop forwards from getting to the basket left Fighting Illini guards open for outside shots.
Illinois center Maverick Morgan was able to score 16 points and earn four assists as the Wolverines, especially Wagner, had no answer for how to contain him.
But Wagner learned from his struggles matching up against Morgan, and is welcoming his next challenge.
“I’m very happy I’m in this position to have this challenge right now,” Wagner said. “(Happ’s) a great scorer, a great rebounder for his length, and I’ll see him tomorrow on his court.”
The Badgers’ defense has been strong as well. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in scoring defense, holding its opponents to 60.2 points per game.
In their last loss against Purdue, the Badgers were exposed inside, allowing the Boilermakers’ big men to post high scoring tallies.
With that in mind, Wagner will need to make an impact offensively. And after his career performance against Nebraska, Wagner seems poised to do just that.
“His confidence has been through the roof these past five games I would say, which has been great,” said senior wing Zak Irvin. “Just another weapon for us to be able to have on the floor. Playing the ‘5,’ how versatile he is on the offensive end is great for us. Hopefully, he can show that again tomorrow night.”
Beilein will need a lot to go right for the Wolverines to leave Madison with what would be just his third career win over Wisconsin. That effort begins with putting Wagner in positions where he can successfully shut down Happ as well as score points on the other end.