If Franz Wagner proved one thing in the first half of the Wolverines’ Big Ten slate, it’s that he doesn’t shy away from big moments.
For the Michigan men’s basketball team, Tuesday’s game against Nebraska was one of those moments. With senior point guard Zavier Simpson (suspension) and junior forward Isaiah Livers (injury) unavailable, the Wolverines were without two main sources of offense as they limped into Lincoln with a 0-5 road record.
Riding the program’s longest losing streak in five years, it appeared the perfect storm was brewing — one that would bring a loss with the potential to impact Selection Sunday in all the wrong ways.
Instead, Michigan overcame the absences and road environment, ending its drought with a 79-68 win.
While junior guard Eli Brooks scored a game-high 20 points, it was Wagner’s aggressiveness that stood out most. The freshman wing took a team-high 15 shots in 25 minutes, scored 18 points, tied his season-high with eight rebounds and added three steals.
What’s more important, though, is how he reached that statline. Before Tuesday, more than half of Wagner’s shots against conference opponents came from beyond the arc. Michigan coach Juwan Howard is relentless in encouraging his players to let it go when they’re open, but there also seemed to be times when the 6-foot-9, long-armed Wagner could be taking advantage of matchups in other ways.
Against the Cornhuskers, he was more than a spot-up shooter. And when the Wolverines needed him to do it all, that’s exactly what he did. The Daily took a closer look:
While Wagner’s height and length give him a physical upper-hand in most one-on-one matchups, they’re perhaps most valuable on the open floor. Against a Nebraska team that posed few intimidating size matchups, Wagner took advantage.
In this clip, his long arms allow him to disrupt a scoring opportunity and turn it into one of his own. His ball-handling made the difference after the initial steal, particularly the left-handed push dribble and behind-the-back move. Because both moves came in stride, he got to the rim and finished through contact with his off hand. Few players on the court can do all that in one fell swoop.
By now, Wagner has made a name for himself within the Big Ten as a 3-point shooter. But when Michigan needed him to make a difference in the interior on Tuesday, he delivered.
Offensively, the team used his size to solve Nebraska’s zone defense. By keeping senior center Jon Teske on the block, the Wolverines made the Cornhuskers commit at least one defender to the post. That opened space for Wagner to remain at the free throw line, waiting for a chance to slip into a gap as the zone shifted in response to perimeter passes.
In this clip, Brooks’ pump fake toward the post creates one of those gaps. Wagner, then, needs only one dribble to get to the rim and finish strong.
Wagner made his interior presence felt on defense, too. Knowing Teske would hedge hard on ball screens, he adjusted his off-ball defensive position accordingly.
By shifting into the paint, Wagner was able to help on Teske’s assignment in case the hedger couldn’t recover in time. His defensive IQ kicked in, as he straddled the line between committing to Teske’s assignment and remaining close enough to his own man to defend any cross-court skip pass.
Sure enough, Teske couldn’t recover in time, giving Nebraska a chance to take advantage. But when Kevin Cross left his feet for what he thought would be an open layup, Wagner was there to protect the rim.
Above all else, Wagner’s versatility defined his effectiveness on Tuesday. Because of his ability to score at all three levels, Howard can play him alongside a true center like senior Austin Davis and sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr., who often works out of the post.
With each of them on the floor, Wagner’s scoring chances come in bunches when defenses collapse. In this clip, he’s left wide open on the perimeter when Johns’ post touch draws four Cornhuskers into the paint.
Wagner makes his way to the top of the key once he notices the defensive collapse, which creates an easier passing angle for Johns’ kickout. Nobody is within eight feet of Wagner when he catches it, and he promptly buries the three.
With Livers on the shelf for the foreseeable future, Wagner’s evolving offensive game could help pull Michigan out of the Big Ten’s bottom half. To do that, though, the Wolverines need the multi-dimensional version of Wagner — not the spot-up shooter who’s made just five of his last 26 3-point attempts.
“Franz is a high-IQ basketball player,” Howard said. “He knows that we need his offensive leadership. He knows that we need his offensive talent. And today, he did a really good job of mixing in both by attacking the basket and making outside shots.”
On Tuesday, Wagner showed what his offensive game looks like when the puzzle pieces are put together. If those pieces can remain intact once Simpson and Livers return, Michigan’s offense could very well peak at the right time.