March Madness 2018: Moe Wagner's emotional growth makes him big NCAA threat

As her son Moritz was in the process of producing a point per minute in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament, his playing time limited that afternoon because the Michigan Wolverines needed no more to beat Purdue, Beate Wagner was a festival of jubilant emotion at her seat in Madison Square Garden.

March Madness 2018: Moe Wagner's emotional growth makes Michigan big NCAA threat

March Madness 2018: Moe Wagner's emotional growth makes Michigan big NCAA threat

After she she made it down to the court to join in the postgame celebration of the Wolverines' championship and Moe had been named the tournament MVP, she dissolved into tears of joy.

It became obvious in that moment: The apple does not fall far from the (very tall) tree.


Beate Wagner at the Big Ten Tournament championship. (Mike DeCourcy/SN)

No doubt Moe gets a least some of his 6-11 height from his delightful mother, but he also seems to have inherited her expressiveness. When he fouled out of Michigan's first-round Big Ten game against Iowa and the Wolverines had to play an overtime period without him, he was alternately biting his nails and burying his face in his palms and acknowledging a successful play with a fist pump. When the game was over, he let out a sigh that could be seen 10 rows away.

"I am a very expressive guy and emotional. I think that's part of me. I think everyone understands that," Wagner told Sporting News. "That's part of my game, but at the same time there's a certain limit and boundary that you can't surpass. When I find that right balance, I play at my best."

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As Michigan opens the 2018 NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the West Region with a game Thursday against Big Sky champion Montana (9:50 p.m. ET, TBS), you may see Wagner stick out his tongue after a spectacular play — he says that comes from his father, Axel Schulz — and no one is quicker with a high-five for a teammate. But growing from a player ruled by his emotion into one fueled by it has been an essential aspect of Moe's development into one of the most dangerous players in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

"He had a tendency, when he was younger, to kind of get out of whack," senior forward Duncan Robinson told SN. "He'd let a play get to him, or something. But he's grown a lot in that area. I think that's one of the biggest differences in his game.

"Just his confidence level is better. Obviously, he's matured physically, as well. But his confidence level and his emotional stability are the biggest differences."


The tongue is out, which means Moe Wagner did something good for Michigan. (Getty Images)

Wagner arrived from Berlin in the fall of 2015 ranked 119th in his recruiting class, but it took a while for him to adjust to NCAA basketball from what he'd done with his club in Germany and the youth national team. He averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game for the Wolverines as they relied more on sophomores Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle.

As a sophomore, Wagner quickly surpassed Donnal in the rotation and Doyle already had transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. His season peaked with a 26-point performance against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament second round that left the higher-seeded Cardinals befuddled. He converted 11 of 14 from the field as they never found a means of containing his ability to drive the ball.

Wagner also is one of the best shooters at his size in college basketball. He has made 98 3-pointers over the past two seasons, converting at a .396 percentage. Wagner became known as a great shooter for a big man. That was not the ideal, though. He was encouraged by coach John Beilein to become "a big that can shoot." There is a difference.

Wagner's circumstance changed enormously at Michigan in this, his junior year, and not simply because he grew another year older. The decision of 6-10 frontcourt partner D.J. Wilson to enter the 2017 NBA Draft left Wagner as the lone big man in the Wolverines' lineup. That meant taking on more responsibility to defend the baseline and rebound missed shots and simply to "play big."

That had not been his area of expertise. A year ago, he was very much 6-11 but grabbed only 4.2 rebounds per game. Three Wolverines teammates did better, including 6-1 Derrick Walton and 6-6 Zak Irvin. Wagner was at the center of a defense that ranked 69th in NCAA Division I. Now the defense is ranked No. 5 and he has 77 more defensive rebounds than any teammate.

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"It's an exceptional difference," Beilein said. "I mean, his timing — it was all off. He didn't go get the ball. He didn't necessarily box out.

"That's one of the things that I think if he's going to play in the pros one day — he's a stretch four at that level. Stretch fours certainly have to rebound. He's really shown some great growth there."

Wagner examined the possibility of joining Wilson in the draft after the Wolverines closed last season with a dramatic victory at the Big Ten Tournament and then a run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 that might have been one rebound away from a trip to the Final Four.

They were leading Oregon by three points when the Ducks' Dylan Ennis missed the front end of a one-and-one; if Michigan had grabbed that rebound, it would have had the ball and about 100 seconds to kill. Oregon's Jordan Bell grabbed that rebound instead and scored.

At least Wagner wasn't responsible. He wasn't in the game. He would be if Michigan were in the same situation now. He averages 7.1 rebounds and had 13 in a Big Ten quarterfinal victory over Nebraska. It was his seventh double-figure rebounding game of the season, up from two last season.

"It was necessary. I thought about going to the NBA, leaving school, which would have been a big decision," Wagner said. "The one thing I heard was: You've got to rebound the basketball as a big man. At any level. Four rebounds a game seemed like accidental. I kind of had to prove that to be a complete player at any level I have to rebound the ball. I took a lot of personal pride in that.

"On defense, it sucks to be out there knowing you are a defensive liability of your team, and people pick you out to score on you. There's a certain pride that has developed over the offseason, watching games from last year. I still have a long way to go in terms of defense, but I made my steps there."

There are only a handful of players from Germany in the NBA, the most obvious being Hall of Fame-bound Dirk Nowitzki, who Wagner cites as an enormous influence on his career. Wagner jokes that he began playing basketball more seriously because his mother preferred watching him compete inside gymnasiums than outside on cold soccer fields. There seems little doubt, though, that Nowitzki's incredible success had an impact, as well.

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Wagner got to meet his hero in February 2017 after the Dallas Mavericks visited the Detroit Pistons for a regular-season game. It wasn't the first time, though.

"I met him when I was little. He worked out in my home gym in Berlin and I took a picture with him. I was like 13 or 14, so it was a big deal," Wagner said. "And then last year, we organized a meeting and that was really cool. I talked to him, and it was kind of a weird experience. Because I remember being so short looking up, and now we could talk eye to eye. He was a really cool dude to talk with. You can't tell he's one of the best scorers of all time. He's just a normal guy.

"He had a huge impact on me. He showed it was possible. He showed a new generation that it's doable. The (Mavericks' NBA) championship in 2011 was very impactful for me. You kind of identify yourself with him, even though I didn't know him. That definitely gives you hope and belief."

Wagner could have followed the typical European course into professional basketball, signing a contract with his club team in his home nation, Alba Berlin, and then perhaps looking toward the States after developing there. He was not some undiscovered prospect; he was one of the best players in the German youth system.

Wagner instead had the idea of playing at an American college — like his Alba teammate, 2014 NCAA champion Niels Giffey (of Connecticut), and his coach, 1993 NCAA champion Henrik Rodl (North Carolina).

This meant Beate Wagner had to endorse the idea of her son moving nearly 7,000 kilometers from home. She and Axel are both medical school graduates, however (Axel is a psychologist and Beate works as a journalist), so the idea of Moritz becoming educated at one of America's great public universities no doubt was appealing.

"The coach, he came to us, and we had lunch together, and the atmosphere — we thought it would be a good decision to give him his time," Beate told SN. "You have to find your place."

She said there were times when Moe became homesick. "Of course, because we are very close, but this is normal," she said. One antidote to this ailment is FaceTime. Another is periodic trips to see him play. She and her husband usually take turns because they have another son to take care of, and the Big Ten Tournament was hers. At Christmas, the Wolverines had enough of a break for Moe to spend four days back in Berlin.

"We only had four days, so every second we had to be close as a family: to sit together, to eat together, to talk together," Beate said. "It was nice."

On the court, Wagner has grown into a leader and a frontcourt force by increasing his strength, harnessing his emotion and by simply growing older.

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"Being one of these guys that had seen more than the others, it kind of forced me to do that," Wagner said. "It helps me the most because I'm more productive, but it's better for the team because if one guy goes emotionally drunk it's kind of contagious, and the team has to worry about one thing more than just scoring the ball and defending.

"I am a very expressive guy and emotional. I think that's part of me. I think everyone understands that. That's part of my game, but at the same time there's a certain limit and boundary that you can't surpass. When I find that right balance, I play at my best."

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