The game’s result was no longer in doubt. 

With a 14-point buffer and just over a minute remaining, the Michigan men’s basketball team was assured its first Big Ten win of the season over Iowa.

Off a long defensive rebound, though, even with no need to push the ball in transition, two Wolverines saw an opportunity anyway.

After sending an outlet pass to sophomore guard David DeJulius, freshman wing Franz Wagner hightailed down the floor. The Hawkeyes were retreating a little too casually for their own good, and Wagner was about to take full advantage. Almost telepathically, DeJulius read the situation and hoisted a pinpoint alley-oop from 30 feet out.

Wagner finished it off with a two-handed flush. 

The crowd inside Crisler Center erupted, the Michigan bench jumped to its feet in excitement and Wagner strolled away smiling ear-to-ear. The fact that the sequence increased the Wolverines’ lead to 16 points was trivial. What the slam meant in the grand scheme of things was much more meaningful.

The 103-91 win over Iowa pushed Michigan to 8-1 on the season. For Wagner, though, Friday night was just his fifth college game. The heralded freshman, who played professionally in Germany last season, was forced to sit out the first month of the season after fracturing his wrist. 

When he returned to action, he was thrown right into the fire, starting all three games of the Battle 4 Atlantis — against Iowa State, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 6 Gonzaga — and playing 30 minutes against top-ranked Louisville. 

Despite showing positive flashes in all four games, Wagner also looked a step slow. Offensively, he shot 28.5 percent from behind the arc and 36 percent overall. It was even more glaring on the defensive end, where Wagner had some missed assignments, and at times, let his guard down. 

This was especially true against the Cardinals. Wagner was given the tall task of guarding their leading scorer, Jordan Nwora, and struggled to contain him. 

“I think against Louisville, off the ball, I played good defense,” Wagner said last Thursday. “Maybe I could’ve communicated a little more. On the ball, I can definitely do a better job. He’s a really good player though and you have to give him credit.”

Against Iowa, Wagner seemed to turn a corner on both ends. He looked aggressive on offense, scoring 18 and getting to the foul line 10 times. Defensively, he held the Hawkeyes’ second leading scorer, Joe Wieskamp, to just seven points on 2-of-6 shooting. 

“Franz gave us great production,” said Michigan coach Juwan Howard. “It was great that he played with a lot of confidence — not saying he didn’t play with a lot of confidence before. But, when you see the ball go through the basket a few times, it gives you a gratifying feeling.”

While it was Wagner’s best performance of the season, it wasn’t necessarily unexpected. Despite a somewhat slow start and the occasional miscue, Wagner has gradually gained confidence with each and every game. The latest showing against the Hawkeyes was merely a glimpse of what his teammates and coaches had raved about over the summer.

“Every game I feel better out there,” Wagner said. “It takes a little time, but I felt good out there today.”

Added Howard: “Like I tell Franz, you just gotta stick to the process. Because it’s tough for a guy to only have one practice and come in and play three games in a row. It wears on you, and then when see that your shot is flat or you shoot an air ball or you miss a layup or you travel, you can get down on yourself. That’s something we don’t want him to do because he’s a big part of our team.” 

Howard never wavered from his decision to start Wagner as soon as he was ready. He gives a solid Michigan roster even more of a scoring threat going forward and valuable minutes at a sorely-needed spot.

In the closing minutes of the game, knowing what the moment had meant to him, Howard gave Wagner a high-five and some encouragement near the sideline. 

“He just asked me if that felt good,” Wagner said. “It was after that dunk and I said, ‘Yeah.’

“… It felt good hanging on the rim again.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *