Jacob Kopnick: The fragility of Michigan’s success

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 5:27pm

Freshman forward Franz Wagner found himself in foul trouble against Maryland, disrupting Michigan's gameplan.

Freshman forward Franz Wagner found himself in foul trouble against Maryland, disrupting Michigan's gameplan. Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

During Michigan’s loss to Maryland on Sunday, Franz Wagner was whistled for his second foul just eight minutes into the first half.

Due to the team’s autobench policy under those circumstances, the freshman wing spent the remaining 12 minutes of the half planted firmly on the bench. Prior to the foul, the score was 12-9, and the Wolverines were going toe-to-toe with the inevitable Big Ten regular season champs.

Once Wagner vacated the court, though, the offense fell to tatters.

“We were scrambling,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said on Sunday. “Franz, he’s a big part of our team. Not only on the defensive end but on the offensive end with his outside shooting, his length. The way he attacks the basket with force. When he had to sit down early, by a possession where there was a call made on him for a foul.”

Even the head coach of the Wolverines admitted the offense was struggling. They were struggling to find another option with Wagner on the bench — an offense that includes star facilitator Zavier Simpson, playmaker Isaiah Livers and sharpshooter Eli Brooks.

But then, later in the game, well after that second foul was called when Wagner tried to swat a ball in the post, the referee who blew the whistle did the unthinkable — the official conceded he was wrong.

“He told me he was wrong, which doesn’t help me in the end,” Wagner said, “but that hurt which is especially frustrating because I thought those three fouls came because I was there, I was ready to help, and we were flying around the way we wanted on defense and that was definitely frustrating.”

More than making a statement about the quality of officiating in the game, the second foul call on Wagner in the first half arguably changed the momentum of the matchup and revealed the glaring fragility of Michigan’s success.

The Wolverines were one errant foul call away from having their leading scorer of the past five games on the court for the rest of the half and not having to scramble to put points on the board.

One call. To suggest this is a tenable setup heading into potential weeks of basketball where Michigan has to play back-to-back-to-back games is a foolish endeavor.

At any time, the Wolverines are an injury or a whistle away from getting lost in the fray.

The entire course of this season has, for the most part, followed this rule.

After starting the year as hot as any team in the nation, Michigan lost Livers to injury which then forced the team into a four-game losing skid. Recently, Brooks broke his nose and watched his squad lose to Wisconsin in street clothes.

Aside from the appendages of their players, it appears as if the Wolverines’ success is also fragile. Some may view it as nothing more than run-of-the-mill adversity striking at inopportune times throughout the season, refusing to acknowledge the team’s lack of effective back-up plans.

“I think we’ve been through a lot this year, through more than some other teams have,” Wagner said. “We lost a couple games in a row, won a lot of games in a row. Injuries, stuff like that, I think that’ll help us especially now in the postseason when adversity and how you deal with it is gonna decide who’s gonna win the championship. It definitely can help us, we just gotta take one game at a time though and be confident.”

Perhaps Wagner’s right. Perhaps Michigan has been vaccinated for the injury bug. Perhaps the Wolverines have endured enough losing to know what it’s going to take to win come tournament time.

Or maybe, it’s something far more pervasive — a latent fragility that will sideline the Wolverines come any sign of trouble.

Injuries can be explained away and the odds are that Michigan may ride off into the sunset with a fully healthy squad as opposed to hobbling to mediocrity riddled with bruised groins and broken noses. But Sunday’s loss and Wagner’s fouls suggest the problem may be more fundamental — the team needs contingencies, badly. 

Granted, Sunday’s affair was on the road against a top-10 team, but the lack of a second option in the face of a downed player is still glaring this team in the face.

Because the next time a referee is potentially apologizing to a Wolverine for getting the wrong call, the stakes will be a lot higher and right now, it doesn’t look like Michigan has all the answers.

Kopnick can be reached at jkopnick@umich.edu or on Twitter @jkopnick.