MADISON — Moritz Wagner sat at a table in the lower level of the Kohl Center. He rested his head on his fist, looking off into the distance as a question was directed at his teammate, senior wing Zak Irvin.
Then his shoulders dropped, and his head fell to his chest. In the simplest sense, he looked like a man who had just had his heart broken. And for all intensive purposes that’s exactly what had happened, because calling the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 68-64 loss to Wisconsin anything less than heartbreaking would be an understatement.
The fact is this loss hurts more than the Wolverines’ other six because, entering Tuesday night, they were never expected to win in the first place.
Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Michigan coach John Beilein has notched an uninspiring 2-16 record against the Badgers. On top of that, this season’s Wolverines had opened the conference season 2-3, and allowed 85 points in their previous two games.
The list keeps going. Michigan’s big men were exposed against Illinois, and a matchup against Wisconsin forwards Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes seemed to be the precursor to a blowout.
So as Michigan took the floor in Madison, it was, in every sense of the word, an underdog.
From the opening tip, the Badgers did exactly what was expected of them. Their blueprint for success has always been to play through the post — something Beilein admitted Monday — and they got the ball to Happ and Hayes early.
But from the get-go, the Wolverines turned the expected into the unexpected.
It all started on Wisconsin’s first possession. The Badgers fed Happ down low, he backed down redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and pivoted to shoot a hook shot.
As Wilson got posted up, it felt like Michigan had another long night ahead of itself. When he rejected Happ’s attempted hook, though, it seemed like a sliver of hope might be there after all.
Then the game continued to deviate from the norm, and the more it did so, that sliver of hope turned into a concrete lead.
First it was Wilson’s block, then it was Happ’s foul trouble. Then another block for Wilson, and the Wolverines started diving on the floor for loose balls. Their offense sputtered, but this time, that was fueling them on the opposite end. Wilson’s second block received a reaction from the bench as if he had just hit a game winner in the Big Dance.
For the first time in exactly two months, but what has felt more like forever, Michigan at least replicated the heart of the team that people — myself included — were raving about in Madison Square Garden.
And before the Wolverines knew it, they were leading by eight with 12:40 left to play — turning the Kohl Center into some beautiful and chaotic paradise where they could find a spark to reignite their season.
Then Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig broke Michigan’s heart.
The Wolverines couldn’t have done much more in a game they were expected to lose. Yes, forwards Mortiz Wagner and DJ Wilson hurt the Wolverines by getting in foul trouble. But they also contributed to a defensive effort that seemed to crack Wisconsin’s typical blueprint for success. Hayes posted 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting, while Happ was held below his scoring average for the season — posting just 11 points. Michigan’s defense still showed plenty of weaknesses, but it held the Badgers to a 45.3 shooting percentage — a mark well below its opponents’ season average of 66.3.
In reality, had Koenig not done what senior leaders are meant to do when their team has its back against the wall, the Wolverines could be heading back to Ann Arbor with their best win of the season against No. 17 Wisconsin.
Michigan had led by as much eight before Koenig hit the first layup. But little did the Wolverines know that one layup could open Pandora’s box. The first came with 5:51 remaining in the game.
Thirty five seconds later, Koenig took a ball in transition, beat his man off the dribble and got to the rim for another lay in.
Then Wagner missed a three after a Wolverine timeout, and Koenig grabbed the rebound himself. The Badgers used an elevator screen to let their senior guard roll with the hot hand, and Koenig obliged, pulling up three feet behind the arc and burying one from deep.
Then the Kohl Center turned from a beautifully chaotic paradise to a lonely and loud island that Michigan was stranded on.
In the blink of an eye, the Wolverines missed again. The Badgers came down the floor, and Koenig caught the ball open in the corner. He pulled up and the ball fell through the hoop, completing his personal 10-0 run and simultaneously giving everyone in the building an indication of how this one was going to end.
Michigan had led for over 11 minutes. Koenig turned that into a consolation prize for the trip to Madison.
And that’s why Wagner looked like he had his heart broken: Michigan had the golden goose in its crosshairs, when it was never expected to in the first place.
But as it was about to pull the trigger, Bronson Koenig scored 10 points too many.