NEW YORK CITY, NY — Moritz Wagner finished off a jump hook in the lane, his 17th and 18th points of the night, and backpedaled to the defensive end. But his eyes, attention and mouth stayed fixated on Nebraska forward Isaac Copeland.
The junior center wanted to make his presence known, and he felt his mouthguard was a prohibiting factor in that effort. So he took it out.
“Yeah, one of their players told me to go at him, and I went at him and scored,” Wagner said. “So I told him not to do that.”
“I’m just lit that Moe be talking his stuff, like let him know how he’s feelin,’ ” said freshman guard, and smack-talk specialist, Jordan Poole. “I don’t think (the talk is) as aggressive if you have a mouthpiece in.”
Wagner “talked his stuff” all day and then backed it up on the court.
Last Wagner heard from the Cornhuskers, their fans were chanting his name sarcastically and repeatedly. He, and the entire Michigan men’s basketball team, were jeered off the court, emphatically sent back to Ann Arbor with a 72-52 blowout loss. Wagner scored just two points in that game.
Just 1:04 into Friday’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal rematch, he had already matched that total, just the start of Wagner’s dominant 20-point, 13-rebound performance to lead the Wolverines to a 77-58 rout of Nebraska.
There would be no jeering Friday, nor any doubt who was the best player on the floor.
“As a team we didn’t act well,” said sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson on the first matchup. “I’m not saying we were fighting or anything, we just didn’t stick together. If you watched Nebraska in the first game, (Wagner) was always out on the wing, he was like home plate, always out on the wing. This time, I think he rode, opened it up more, not just for him but for others as well. So we were able to attack driving lanes, give it to him, nice slips. If he gets going, you guys see the 20 (points) in (number) 13.
“He turned that 2 and turned it to a 20,” added freshman forward Isaiah Livers.
The loss in Lincoln marked a low point, not only for Wagner, but for the entire team. The Cornhuskers — a smaller, athletic group — decided to switch each screen, catching Michigan coach John Beilein off guard. More importantly, it forged a blueprint for future teams to use against the Wolverines, one that would plague them through much of the latter half of the regular season.
“We shouldn’t lose by 20 is how I look at it,” Poole said. “We lost to that team like that, and we didn’t feel like they were super-duper talented to the point where they should beat us by 20.”
But the reaction immediately after that first game was more bewilderment than anger. The question of how to overcome the offensive struggles presented no easy answer other than “Let offensive wizard John Beilein figure it out.”
“They have tremendous athletes at every position. We struggled with that tonight, but we’ll figure it out,” Wagner said after that game. “Their gameplan worked today, but we’ll figure out a way.”
Added Beilein: “They switched every screen. Every screen. Roby allows them to do that. I don’t know if we’d be successful with the big guys, but that’s a thing we’re going to see again from many teams, and … we’ve got to continue to develop.”
And he was right.
Purdue deployed the same strategy, insistent on holding Wagner in check at all cost. Rutgers did the same, holding Michigan to just 62 points. Ohio State tried the same tactic. It was an open secret in the Big Ten — and a flaw Beilein arduously worked to fix.
And there was no doubting the Cornhuskers would try to emulate that success in the rematch Friday.
Which puts Wagner’s commanding showcase — at Madison Sqaure Garden in front of a plethora of NBA scouts, to boot — in greater context. This wasn’t merely Wagner, the team’s leading scorer, scoring and rebounding with ease. It was a real, tangible sign of growth for a team that just keeps showing more.
“(We were) way better,” Livers said when asked about the screen-switching dilemma. “We actually watched film on it today. … (Wagner) did more of spacing after he slips — he did more of spacing. Last time, I think he would slip but he would be too close to the ballhandler, and all (the defender would) have to do was scramble out to him. But he did a great job spacing out and finding his shot, and creating offense for himself.”
For Wagner, though, the answer was less Xs and Os-focused.
“It’s a lot more fun when you get buckets,” Wagner said. “I can tell you that.”
It was an answer fitting for one of the most outgoing personalities on the team, for a guy who takes out his mouthguard just to talk smack.