Heading into the season, there was an understanding among the Michigan men’s basketball team that senior forward Isaiah Livers and sophomore forward Franz Wagner would operate as the focal points of the Wolverines’ offense. 

In Wednesday night’s 84-65 win over Ball State, that vision came to fruition. 

Livers scored a game-high 21 points on 8-of-11 from the field. Wagner chipped in with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting. 

“It’s a coach’s dream,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You have two big, talented wings that can shoot the basketball. Both have high IQ, they have great length and also both are athletic. … It’s great to have those two be able to go out there and inspire the group with their energy and effort and then also go out there and compete from start to finish.” 

Looking to bounce back from Sunday’s sluggish offensive performance against Oakland’s 1-3-1 zone, a quick start was imperative. 

Wagner sparked the Wolverines from the get-go, scoring seven points in the game’s opening minutes and keying an early 9-0 run. Wagner had slogged through the first two games of the season, scoring just 15 points and at times seeming invisible on the court. In turn, Michigan placed an emphasis on getting Wagner more involved. 

“I was telling him through warmups, all through practice, ‘stay aggressive,’ ” Livers said. “He was concerned about, ‘I don’t know when to be aggressive, when not to be aggressive,’ and I think he found out his in-between and when to be aggressive and when not to.”

Ninety minutes before tip-off, Wagner was the lone Wolverine on the court, putting up 3-pointers with a pair of team managers. While he would go on to make the only 3-pointer he attempted, subsequently snapping an 0-of-6 skid from deep, Wagner concentrated on getting to the basket and showcased a controlled aggression that he lacked in the first two games. 

On an early fast break, Wagner side-stepped the defense and finished through contact for an and-1 opportunity, celebrating with a fist-pump as if to release frustration. Later in the game, he glided coast-to-coast and banked home a contested runner. 

In each of its first two games, Michigan hoisted 27 3-pointers. Against the Cardinals, the Wolverines took just 15. The shift started with the mentality of Wagner and Livers, each player pushing the envelope and willing their way to the basket. 

“Coach Howard mentions, try to get to the basket and get fouled, I did that in the second half where I didn’t want to settle for a jump shot,” Livers said. “I drove my man and drew a foul and that’s what happens when you drive the ball with your head up, you’re looking for guys, swinging it to open shooters. We got a lot of talent so it can’t be one guy doing everything. I try to get everybody together, just be as selfless as possible like we are.” 

Livers displayed a soft -touch in mid-range, nailing an array of jump shots and fadeaways. Like Wagner, he brought the ball up and down the court, looking comfortable in his role as point forward. When Livers and Wagner were at the helm, Michigan’s offense looked crisp and fluid. 

Whereas Wagner set the tone, Livers placed the exclamation mark on the victory. His ferocious two-handed dunk essentially sealed the outcome, capping a 9-0 spurt and giving the Wolverines a 23-point lead with under ten minutes to play. 

For Michigan, Livers and Wagner excelling together and fulfilling their role as focal points is a welcoming sign. But with an atypically short nonconference schedule, the soft part of the season is a remnant of the past, and conference play looms in just three games. 

The sense of urgency makes it all the more crucial that Livers and Wagner step seamlessly into their roles, something that they’re conscious of. 

“We need Franz, I’m not even gonna lie to you,” Livers said. “Franz is an asset to this team. He’s gonna help us win championships. And when he’s aggressive, we’re gonna be very hard to stop.” 

The same applies to Livers. And if Wednesday’s game is any indication for what the future holds, Michigan is in good hands. 

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