‘Bond’ between Beilein and Wagner pays dividends for Wolverines
Mortiz Wagner cursed in German as he entered the halftime locker room.
The twenty minutes of basketball he’d just play couldn’t have gone much worse for the junior center from Berlin. He picked up an early foul — something coach John Beilein has continuously stressed he can’t do — sending him to the bench while tension between the Michigan men’s basketball team and Michigan State nearly boiled over.
And when Wagner returned to the court, the clink of the rim’s iron repeatedly greeted him. Or even worse: the top of the backboard.
With the Wolverines down one late in the first half, Wagner waved Xavier Tillman goodbye with a ball fake, set his feet from the corner, and launched possibly the ugliest shot of his college career. It was a summation of a porous half for Wagner: 0-for-7 from the floor, five misses from deep and only one point.
“0-for-7? Maybe that’s why he was yelling in German all in here,” joked freshman forward Isaiah Livers.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Wagner was dominant against Nebraska, scoring 20 and grabbing 13 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season. But Saturday wasn’t his day — or so it seemed.
Back in the locker room, Beilein challenged Wagner to regain form.
“At halftime, I said, ‘Moe, you’re stinking the place up,’ ” Beilein recalled. “Can you make a shot (in) the second half?”
For some players, that type of exchange can backfire. Nerves — especially in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden — can become rattled with increased pressure.
But not for Wagner and Beilein. On the court, Beilein doesn’t direct the offense away from Wagner when he struggles — even if he misses a 3-pointer off the top of the backboard. Instead, that’s the point where Beilein calls Wagner’s number even more.
“He’s pretty resilient,” Beilein said. “I think it’s important that everyone understands that I draw up more stuff for him when he’s not playing well because I know he’ll come back.”
Though Wagner missed a 3-pointer on Michigan’s first possession of the second half, that’s exactly what happened Saturday. Down by a point two-plus minutes in, Zavier Simpson called for a Wagner screen. Wagner — rather than executing the Wolverines’ patented pick-and-pop play — dove to the hoop, caught a perfect pass and laid in a bunny for his first bucket of the afternoon.
Then, with less than 17 minutes to play, he banked in a contested fadeaway before scoring in transition off a baseball pass from Simpson 60 seconds later, flexing his arms and yelling as he jogged down the floor.
After six consecutive points for Michigan, suddenly, Wagner looked like his normal self.
“Once that first basket went in, I felt the crowd going crazy for me, I felt like it relieved us,” Wagner said. “Like, “Okay, now we hoopin’.”
That mindset proved paramount midway through the half when the Spartans closed their deficit to just three. On a similar look to the one he missed wildly earlier, Wagner drilled a 3-pointer over the Empire State Building-esque reach of Jaren Jackson Jr. — a shot that shifted the game in the eyes of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“In the second half, I thought it changed when Wagner hit that three in the corner,” Izzo said. “We acted surprised that he was going to shoot it.”
Simpson and redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews had hot hands in the first frame. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has had one since February. Defensively, sophomore forward Jon Teske is a better pound-for-pounds matchup against a sizable Spartans’ frontcourt. Beilein had several options.
But he still chose Wagner — who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds — to make shots time and time again.
“Coach Beilein has a lot of confidence in me — and my teammates too — and they kept calling my number,” Wagner said. “When we celebrate after, it’s all worth it.”
Still, Beilein and Wagner’s relationship goes beyond just X’s and O’s. Last year, Wagner’s mother traveled some thousands of miles to watch her son play in the Big Ten Tournament. This year, she did it again, and before the Wolverines’ opening game against Iowa, Beilein used her presence as a rallying cry.
“ ‘Guys, Moe’s mother came all the way from Germany. We can’t be going home in one day,’ ” Beilein recalled Saturday.
Wagner said he’ll find his mother in the crowd occasionally when he’s shooting free throws or feels like he’s ‘struggling.’
But when she’s not there to see him live, Wagner isn’t far from family-like connection — the one with his coach.
“He’s just got an incredible personality,” Beilein said. “I think I have a bond with that young man. I’ve coached a lot of kids. He’d go into one of those special categories of the kids you love coaching no matter what.”