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On Monday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team will take on a Louisiana State squad that ranks fifth in the nation in scoring. With the Wolverines holding the nation’s sixth best offense per KenPom, the Round of 32 matchup appears on paper to be an old-fashioned shootout.

While points will undoubtedly climb on the Lucas Oil Stadium scoreboard, Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s focus is on the defensive side of the floor.

To succeed with that strategy, sophomore wing Franz Wagner might be Howard’s most pivotal piece of the gameplan.

When Wagner arrived in Ann Arbor in the summer of 2019, his game was defined by one thing: offense. With a lethal jumper and an ability to get to the basket, Wagner’s defense was an asset of his game that was often written off. 

This year, though, Wagner’s defense is no longer an accessory, rather a calling card. He averages 1.3 steals and one block per game. He has won individual matchups against some of the toughest assignments in the conference, including limiting Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. to just 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting in a February win over the Scarlet Knights.

“In my opinion, he’s one of the best defensive players not only in our conference but in college basketball,” Howard said.

Against LSU, Wagner will likely face off against forward Trendon Watford, who in some ways acts as Wagner’s mirror image. An elite scorer and defender, Watford stands at 6-foot-9 and weighs 240 pounds, the same height and 20 pounds heavier than Wagner. Playing against an opponent who plays similarly to himself on offense, Wagner knows the matchup has the potential to present trouble.

“Watford’s a good player, good driver, he can shoot, has a good handle,” Wagner said. “It’s gonna be very tough tomorrow.”

While Wagner will be facing a foe that he hasn’t seen in Big Ten play, he believes his work over the summer has prepared him for matchups like this. 

“Defensively, I think it helped a lot that I worked on my body, I knew that was a big thing coming into the summer,” Wagner said. “(I think) I improved a lot, definitely know there are a couple things I still gotta work on and improve to get even better.”

Now in March, Wagner’s work to transform himself into a defensive stopper has paid massive dividends. In addition to putting together a solid defensive performance in Saturday’s first round win over Texas Southern, Wagner put together a diverse stat line of nine points, nine rebounds and a career-best six assists. In a tournament where teams need players who can step up on one end of the floor when called upon, Wagner’s proven that he can be trusted to deliver on both.

“I’m just trying to do everything I can to help the team win,” Wagner said.

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