The Michigan men’s basketball team hopes it can look back at summer 2016 as not only one of the healthiest summers in recent memory, but also as “The Summer of Mo.”
By the end of the 2015-16 season, sophomore forward Moritz Wagner was beginning to break through and make an impact for the Wolverines. His eight-rebound, four-block performance against Tulsa in the NCAA First Four helped Michigan into the next round of the NCAA Tournament.
In the win over the Golden Hurricane, Wagner displayed he had the talent to lead the Wolverines at the post for seasons to come. But there was still much he had to work on.
Wagner showed he was having a tough time adjusting to the physicality of college basketball compared to what he experienced playing in Germany. The forward was getting into foul trouble too often and knew he needed to be stronger to find any sort of success in the college game.
So, Wagner decided it was essential for him to spend his summer months in Ann Arbor, focusing on strengthening himself and all aspects of his game.
And on Friday, in Michigan’s exhibition against Armstrong State, Wagner began delivering the fruits of his labor.
In 25 minutes, the sophomore was 7-for-9 from the floor, scoring 15 points while grabbing two rebounds. It didn’t matter that the Pirates were a lowly Division II team — Wagner was still making intelligent and confident plays.
He wasn’t perfect in the exhibition, still struggling in some areas of rebounding, but it seems Wagner has come out of the summer as the Wolverines’ most improved player and will likely open up Michigan to more options offensively as the season begins.
“(Wagner’s) going to have to get out there,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “His defense is better, and he stayed out of foul trouble. He really understands that. The big thing is right now, we think he can take a lot of guys his size off the bounce. … You can play through him.”
In past seasons, several of Beilein’s most prolific players have made huge leaps between their freshman and sophomore years. After spending hours in the gym like Wagner, past guards Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas went from above-average Big Ten talents to NBA lottery picks.
But Beilein’s greatest hits have always been in the backcourt.
Former Michigan forwards Glenn Robinson III and Jordan Morgan saw decreased production in rebounds and points per game, respectively, between their first and second seasons, while Mitch McGary’s sophomore year was cut short due to an injury.
But some changes may lead to Wagner breaking the trend.
Changes on Beilein’s staff may create the right conditions for a frontcourt player to finally break through. New assistant coaches Saddi Washington and Billy Donlon bring expertise in post and defensive play that Michigan hasn’t had in years past.
Wagner also brings a mentality completely different from the Wolverines’ past forward talents. Coming from Germany, Wagner had to simultaneously adjust to playing American college basketball and living an American college life. He also had the extra hurdle last year of overcoming cultural and even language gaps that no other player under Beilein has gone through. For Wagner, spending the summer in Ann Arbor was as much about learning more about Michigan culture as it was about Michigan basketball.
“I didn’t realize it last year,” Wagner said. “But now that I’m here, I realize it’s easier to focus if you know what to expect and don’t ask yourself what’s coming and what’s next.”
Despite his struggles last season, Wagner still had flashes of his true ability that broke through, including the tournament game against Tulsa and a 19-point outing versus Charlotte. He’s hoping his work over the summer can lead to more consistency in being able to perform at that level.
“I feel very good right now,” Wagner said. “I wasn’t confident there when I didn’t play a lot, but in practice I always try and keep it as high as possible. That doesn’t really change a lot.”