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Franz Wagner shines against Nebraska after vow to be more aggressive

The sophomore wing set a goal to be more aggressive, and it showed on Friday.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

After emerging as a star in the second half of his freshman year, Franz Wagner was supposed to hit the ground running this season.

That didn’t happen, though. Despite a relatively unchallenging non-conference schedule for the Michigan men’s basketball team, Wagner couldn’t pick up where he left off after averaging 16.6 points per game on 62% shooting in the Wolverines’ final five games last season.

He entered Michigan’s Christmas Day game against Nebraska as the team’s fifth-leading scorer. Much of that could be attributed to a lack of aggressiveness — something he openly admitted during a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday. So during the long 12 days between the Wolverines’ win over Penn State and their trip to Nebraska, Wagner studied film and met with coaches to figure out how he could get more involved in Michigan’s offense.

Before the Wolverines left for Lincoln, senior forward Isaiah Livers made a promise.

“Pretty sure this Nebraska game, everybody’s gonna see the Franz that everybody’s been looking for,” Livers said Wednesday.

Livers was right. Against the Cornhuskers, Wagner scored a season-high 20 points on 56 percent shooting and grabbed nine rebounds.

Most of all, the aggressiveness was clear. After attempting just 40 shots in Michigan’s first six games, he took 16 shots in Lincoln. Michigan’s offense ran through Wagner at times, and he once again showed the flashes of promise that defined last season’s stretch run.

Against both man-to-man and zone defenses, Wagner was able to get to the rim and finish through traffic. He also knocked down multiple 3-pointers in a game for just the second time this year.

“Franz did a good job. He definitely was more aggressive this game,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said. “I think he does a great job at letting the game come to him. He doesn’t force a lot of stuff. (For) defenses, it’s hard guarding a 6-foot-9 wing that can put it on the floor and stuff, so that makes guards hesitant for the drive. And also the shot, he can shoot it over a lot of the people that guard him so he’s a really good mismatch out there and he took a lot of advantage of it today.”

Wagner’s perimeter defense had been steady all season, but he sometimes looked lost at the other end of the floor. Coupled with assist numbers nearly triple that of last year’s, an offensive output like Friday’s is exactly what Michigan needs from Wagner in order to contend in the Big Ten.

If Wagner can sustain such a level of individual scoring and playmaking for others, he’ll be the reason the Wolverines reach their ceiling. His height and length create a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, whether it’s by stretching zones or drawing man-to-man mismatches.

To Michigan coach Juwan Howard, it boils down to Wagner’s comfort level.

“Tonight, he made some really good plays and knocked down some shots,” Howard said. “He went aggressive to the basket, had some tough finishes. I just love that the game seems to be slowing down to him.”

When the game comes easy, Wagner can be as aggressive as the Wolverines need. For Howard, that might be the best Christmas present under the tree.