INDIANAPOLIS — John Beilein hadn’t yet seen Moritz Wagner play when he traveled to Berlin a few years back on a recruiting trip. They met in the lobby of Wagner’s apartment building, and the two managed to jam into an elevator for the ride upstairs.
And between the lobby and Wagner’s floor, Beilein found the hero who would carry his team to the 2017 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
“They have smaller elevators in Europe, and it was really tight in there,” Beilein said. “And his smile was just amazing. He had such a personality. I said, ‘If this kid can play even a little, we want him in our program.'”
Oh, yes, Wagner can play. With a name pronounced like the composer — Vog-ner — his 26 points led the Wolverines to a 73-69 victoryand delivered the apocalypse to No. 2 seed Louisville’s 2016-17 season.
He did it because it was his turn, it was necessary, and he was prepared for the moment. Wagner scored 17 in the second half because Beilein took note of Rick Pitino's defensive approach and calculated that Wagner was the player most advantaged by the Cardinals’ commitment to erasing Michigan’s excellence from the 3-point line.
Louisville played whatever one might call the opposite of the pack-line defense — the loose-lane D? The Cardinals extended their defenders beyond the 3-point line at every opportunity. If a Michigan shooter caught the ball hoping to position himself for a long range shot, he was confronted by a Cardinal with both feet outside the arc.
Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer said the Wolverines were “shook” by UL’s extraordinary length, that they’d played against size before but never against players with this kind of reach. Down 36-28 at halftime, Beilein and his staff looked at the matchups they were dealing with and determined that Wagner had a greater advantage against centers Mangok Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud than power forward D.J. Wilson did against the Cardinals’ Jaylen Johnson.
So that’s how they played it. Wagner drove the ball past the bigs and scored on layups. When he found himself on a switch to smaller defenders such as 6-7 Deng Adel, he established himself in the post and scored over them. Because any potential help defenders were stationed outside the 3-point arc defending guards Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Wagner only had to beat one guy.
“We’ve been working a lot on the switching defense, getting the ball in the post, being aggressive down there,” Wagner said. “I think I’m just very confident because of our practice, because of all the hard work we put it. And it paid off today.
“I just let the game come to me … don’t force anything and see what happens. Today, I got a couple easy ones early. Therefore, my confidence level was high.”
The Wolverines were so committed to their altered emphasis in the second half — and to being judicious with their attack — they did not attempt a 3-pointer until Wilson nailed one with 10:33 left in the game to close the UM deficit to 50-49.
The Wolverines ended the day only 6-of-17 on 3s, but they scored 40 points in the lane and shot 63 percent in the second half. Wagner missed only two of his nine second-half attempts.
“We always believed in ourselves, not only from a shooting respect but also on the defensive end and in the paint, as well,” Wagner said. “I just said to Coach B, we only shot six 3s today and we won. So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”
In Friday’s sizzling shootout with Oklahoma State, which the Wolverines won 92-91 with 16 3-pointers — ranking among the greatest long-range shooting performances since the rule was introduced in 1987 — Wagner found himself superfluous and stranded on the bench as UM went with a 3-point emphasis in the second 20 minutes. He played only 14 minutes, his least in a competitive game since a narrow victory over SMU in December.
Meyer suggested Wagner had extra energy to spend on this game, but he’s a vigorous player on a daily basis.
“He gives me energy,” Meyer said. “It’s fun to come every day and work with Mo Wagner.”