Five minutes into the second half, Franz Wagner turned towards the bench and enthusiastically gave Michigan coach Juwan Howard a high five as he trotted back down the floor.
The sophomore wing had just knocked down a 3-pointer to extend the Wolverines’ lead to twelve points over Nebraska.
“We had a little run there, and we’re always happy to make shots,” Wagner said. “Coach (Howard) was hyping us up, so it was good to kinda get emotional and be happy together and get excited.”
Moments later, it was senior forward Isaiah Livers hitting from deep to further the advantage.
In Michigan’s last outing — a narrow victory over Penn State to open Big Ten play — Wagner and Livers combined for 16 points and shot 3-for-12 from the field. The ensuing 12-day break between games gave Wagner and Livers a chance to fine-tune their offensive approaches. It was evident in the Wolverines’ 11-point win against Nebraska.
Wagner scored a season-high 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting and Livers pitched in an efficient 17 points. The duo also combined for five of Michigan’s nine 3-pointers.
“I thought I took good shots,” Wagner said. “I tried to get to the paint, took open 3s.”
Added Howard: “Tonight (Wagner) made some really good plays and knocked down some shots,” Howard added. “He went aggressive to the basket and had some tough finishes. I just love that the game seems to be slowing down to him.”
After the Dec. 13 game against the Nittany Lions, Wagner emphasized the need to be more aggressive offensively in order to shoulder more of the scoring burden for Michigan. As a freshman last season, Wagner was third on the team in scoring but had struggled through the first six games of this season to show the same offensive consistency. Against the Cornhuskers though, he showed his full repertoire.
“[Wagner] and I had a very good film session,” Howard said. “He understands that I’m a coach who’s gonna really encourage him to play his game. Whenever he’s open, let it fly. When the ball’s in his hands, I trust that he’s gonna make the right play.”
Wagner and Livers were given a number of open looks off of drive-and-kicks from graduate point guard Mike Smith and cross-court passes from freshman center Hunter Dickinson.
Dickinson, who’s already been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice this season, faced a number of double teams from an undersized Nebraska team. On multiple occasions, Dickinson unleashed a one-handed laser to an unguarded Wagner or Livers on the opposite wing. However, Wagner and Livers still had to finish the play.
“It definitely gives me a lot of confidence when I know that I’m passing out to great shooters,” Dickinson said. “Because we’re really hurting the defense when they double team. They’re trying to take away one thing but when we hit them with another thing, it really kills the defense.”
The intensity carried over to the defensive end too. Wagner was especially active on the boards, registering nine rebounds.
“(Wagner’s) a tremendously special talent but more importantly (he is) a two way player for us,” Howard said. “Making winning plays on the offensive and defensive end … Now he’s in his second year and now we’re going into our seventh game, he understands his leadership on both ends of the floor is much needed in order for us to be a competitive team.”
While Michigan was able to outlast Penn State without Wagner or Livers playing their best, that can’t be the norm. The Wolverines needed 20 points from Dickinson in that game and, despite a stellar start to his career, relying solely on the freshman’s scoring ability isn’t sustainable.
In the offseason, Wagner and Livers tested the NBA Draft waters. Their decision to return was a big boost for a revamped Michigan roster. With that said, as the Big Ten season progresses, the Wolverines will need their two most polished offensive players to stay aggressive and efficient, just like they did against the Cornhuskers.