ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.
“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”
Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.
After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville — with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.
The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.
The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.
The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan — two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past — Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.
An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.
Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.
“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts — I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”
The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season — no other Michigan player has more than 80 — and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michiganwon 92-91 .
Against Louisville in the round of 32, Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.
“He’s always just been an excited guy — play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”
The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.
What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway.
There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.
Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why — and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.
“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”