WICHITA, Kan. — Moritz Wagner thinks back to the Oregon game, but not in the way you might assume.
He objects to the notion that he lost last year’s Sweet Sixteen game on his own. He objects to the notion that anyone can lose any single game. Heck, he even objects to the notion that he played that poorly.
“I never feel that way,” the junior center said Wednesday afternoon, “that it’s somebody’s fault, that it’s my fault that we lost.”
Wagner went 3-for-10 from the field and 0-for-4 from 3-point range in the 69-68 season-ending loss, scoring just seven points as his team bowed out of the field. This came less than a week after he carried his team to an upset win over No. 2 seed Louisville with 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting from the field.
If his performance against Louisville was the crescendo on an ascendant sophomore campaign, the Oregon game was the distasteful piano crash at the end.
It would have been easy then to point fingers, connect some dots and assume Wagner’s withdrawal from the NBA draft months after was some sort of impassioned vow to do better — to carry this team on his back to heights it fell just short of last year — all while improving his stock to be a surefire NBA player.
That would fit a traditional narrative of college athletes. To be fair, that’s all part of it. He has improved in many facets, including going from 4.2 rebounds per game to 7.1 rebounds per game. He would love to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time in his career, especially as a team captain and leading scorer.
The reality is much more simple, though: Moritz Wagner loves college basketball.
He loves all the hoopla. He loves draining a three and then dangling his tongue out at the fans or his opponent. He loves the conference rivalries and the bright lights of March. He loves the process of it all as much as he yearns for the glory. He loves to be loved almost as much as he loves to be hated.
“They hate me everywhere,” Wagner says, grinning ear to ear. “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.”
All of this came across in the locker room the afternoon before the first round of an NCAA Tournament that may well be his last, and could easily define his legacy at Michigan.
He won’t look at it that way, though, at least not in the moment. Wagner isn’t going to publicly relish the personal accolades that may come from the next month. He certainly didn’t after winning the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player less than two weeks ago. There’s a distinction between arrogance on the court and selfishness off it, and while one could argue the former, nobody could viably claim the latter.
Wagner, despite his boisterous on-court and off-court persona, is hesitant to ever make guarantees or grand proclamations. He didn’t come back to Michigan to make a Final Four, explicitly at least. He came back to get better with a team he loves at a university he cherishes. And he’s not going to sacrifice his momentary pleasure — no matter how minute or trivial it may seem — for some external end goal, or to overcome a non-existent burden from the exit last March.
“These things are fun, these things are the things you never forget,” Wagner says, peering around the locker room.
To his left, the five walk-ons — traveling together for the first time on the road with the team — are joking around in a circle. To his right, freshman guard Jordan Poole plays hangman on the whiteboard with junior forward Brent Hibbits.
“Whether the games go well, bad,” Wagner continues, “this is the type of stuff that is so much fun around here that we would never experience in any other way.”
Minutes later, Wagner gleefully trots through warmup calisthenics at the team’s open practice with round one of the 2018 NCAA Tournament set to kick off a day later. He and Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington trade some playful banter, before Washington raises his tone a few octaves in Wagner’s direction.
“Your time to shine, baby.”
Marcovitch can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.