IOWA CITY — To Franz Wagner, the most pressing issue for the Michigan men’s basketball team is simple.
It isn’t hapless interior defense, nor is it a winless road record. You can cross the team’s lack of free throws off the list, too. Really, it doesn’t have anything to do with the physical demands of college basketball.
Leaning against the wall of a narrow corridor in Carver-Hawkeye Arena after the Wolverines’ third loss in four games, the freshman wing put it bluntly.
“I think (emotion) is something that we need, something that we lost during the course of the season,” Wagner said. “We need to show more emotion, just within the team (to) show emotion and show that we’re motivated; and that we’re not just playing out there, we’re playing to win the game.”
On Friday night, Iowa City became the latest Big Ten destination Michigan left empty-handed. After beating Iowa by double-digits in December, the Wolverines saw a seven-point lead slip away as the Hawkeyes closed the game on a 25-11 run over the final ten minutes. When the dust settled, Michigan was staring at a 90-83 loss.
Throughout the second half, Wagner did his best to will his team across the finish line. He scored 13 second-half points and added three rebounds — both team-highs. Much of his game is rooted in emotion, which he didn’t shy away from against Iowa.
“When we play, we talk about not just competing, but play to win,” Wagner said. “When somebody says something on the court from the other team, don’t step back. Hold your ground, maybe say something back.
“I think that’s part of the game. You’re confident in yourself, you’re trying to win and you’re trying to stand up for your team.”
And on Friday night, there were moments when Michigan did exactly that. When coach Juwan Howard was hit with a technical foul, the Wolverines responded with a 14-2 run.
During that run, there was an instance when Michigan’s fastbreak drive was stopped at the elbow. Trailing behind the ball-handler, though, was Wagner. Just when it looked like the breakaway was dead, he caught the ball on the left wing and let it fly from behind the arc before Iowa could set up its defense.
He began celebrating even before it went in.
Now, the task at hand revolves around finding ways to apply that confidence to the whole team for an entire game.
“You can see when you look at the film that during a couple stretches, we had everyone involved,” Wagner said. “Everybody (was) super motivated and just locked in. When you’re passionate about the game, that’s when emotion comes out like that.”
That kind of emotion is exactly what the Wolverines have struggled to sustain for long stretches this season. The last time they did, they knocked off North Carolina and now-No. 1 Gonzaga on back-to-back afternoons at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November.
“When you look at the Bahamas, how we played there, you can see we played (with) great togetherness, people picking each other up,” Wagner said. “I think we need to get back to that. … That’s part of our process right now.”
Michigan, which has now lost all five of its true road games, hasn’t found ways to capture the lightning in a bottle in enemy territory. In three of their four conference road losses, the Wolverines have trailed by fewer than five points with under three minutes to play.
As the sense of urgency grows, the energy Michigan so badly craves becomes most elusive.
And as a result, Friday night’s game can be defined by the amount of time the Wolverines spent searching for that emotion — not the amount of time they spent playing with it.