INDIANAPOLIS — Legacies are cemented in March. A select handful of players and teams grow immortalized, etched in their school’s lore. For the rest, the sport’s cruel duality shines through, postseason failures lingering while regular-season successes are largely forgotten.
Such was the case for Franz Wagner Tuesday night against UCLA in the Elite Eight in Michigan’s 51-49 loss.
In the biggest game of his young college career, the sophomore wing failed to show up. And with a decision on the NBA Draft looming — Wagner is widely viewed as a first-round pick — this may be how Wagner’s Michigan career is remembered. A 1-of-10, four-point clunker and an ill-fated, air-balled 3-pointer.
As the night faded into early morning, the Wolverines needed Wagner more than ever. The offense uncharacteristically stagnated, both ball-movement and shot-making lacking. No one seemed to have the knack.
Michigan needed Wagner, its most-gifted offensive player, to rise to the occasion. Instead, he wilted.
UCLA placed a concerted effort on stopping Wagner, an approach that paid dividends early on. In the first half, as Michigan dug one of six halftime deficits on the year, Wagner managed two points on 1-of-4 shooting. He was invisible.
“The plan, we knew he was a strong right-hand driver,” UCLA forward Johnny Juzang said. “We had some of their plays and actions kind of scouted out. You know, guys went out and executed great. Tried to take away those things and slow him down.”
Over the course of the season, Michigan has looked sharpest with Wagner at his best. As he slogged through the season’s opening months, the Wolverines struggled to find their footing as well. However, once Wagner took off, hitting his stride in Big Ten play, Michigan, too, emerged as a bonafide national contender.
“Franz is one of the reasons why we’re here in this position,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after the loss, rushing to Wagner’s defense. “I always have trust in all my players, and it’s never one guy’s fault because he doesn’t shoot the ball well. Together as a team, you win together and you lose together.”
All of that is true. It’s both unfair and inaccurate to single-handedly blame Wagner for the loss when the Wolverines as a team shot 39% from the field and converted just two 3-pointers. Repeatedly, though, Wagner held the ball in his hands down the stretch and failed to deliver.
With 2:58 minutes remaining, Michigan trailed by one and had a chance to seize back momentum with the Bruins scuffling. Wagner pursued one of his staples, slashing across the lane and lofting a running jump-hook that caromed off the glass, no good.
With 44 seconds left, Wagner drew a foul on a drive to the basket and converted both free-throws, sustaining Michigan’s pulse. The upswing proved to be short-lived.
Howard entrusted Wagner with the Wolverines’ fate out of a timeout with 19 seconds to play. This was his chance to grow immortalized in Michigan lore, alongside the likes of Jordan Poole and Trey Burke.
Instead, a wide-opened 3-point attempt morphed into an air-ball that Wagner may see in his nightmares.
The miss proved representative of the 3-point struggles that befell Wagner throughout the NCAA Tournament. On the perimeter, he appeared jittery and uncomfortable, passing up open-looks in favor of dribble-drives or side-step 3-pointers. All of that translated to an 0-of-4 performance from distance on Tuesday and a 21% stat line in the tournament as a whole.
And yet, with half a second remaining, Wagner was given a fleeting chance at redemption. His heave from the left-wing pinballed off the glass, not meant to be.
Wagner, perhaps realizing that the door to Michigan’s championship dreams had been slammed shut, stood at the court’s edge, hands clasped on top of his head. At once, he snapped his shoulders downwards, deadlocking his eyes with the hardwood.
He did not see the scene unfolding five feet away from him — UCLA’s Jaylen Clark heaving the ball into the air, Bruins spilling onto the court in utter euphoria.
The top of his jersey clenched in his mouth, Wagner began the trek toward the locker room, into the offseason, into the unknown, away from a chance at an everlasting legacy.