In the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first game against a ranked opponent this season, Franz Wagner lived up to his billing as one of the Big Ten’s premier two-way players.
The sophomore wing finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and season-high five assists in the 16th-ranked Wolverines’ 85-66 win over No. 19 Northwestern. He continued to showcase his evolution as a playmaker with the ball in his hands — a welcomed development for a Michigan offense that can surround Wagner with other weapons. He also made multiple 3-pointers for the fourth time in the last five games.
But when Juwan Howard was asked what stood out most about Wagner’s performance against the Wildcats, he pointed to the other end of the floor.
“Defense, man. Those blocks on their shooters, those blocks on protecting the basket, it was just inspiring,” Howard said. “His level of being locked in on his attention to detail, locked in on his scouting report. Studying his opponent, knowing their tendencies, the guy’s an architect. I’m just happy we have him on our side.”
It’s hard to overstate Wagner’s defensive impact. He posted a career-high five blocks and added two steals on Sunday, and it never seemed like Northwestern could find an offensive rhythm with him on the floor. He used his length to his advantage, swatting a pair of jump shots and disrupting passing lanes throughout the game.
Most of all, he played lockdown man-to-man defense on Wildcats’ star Pete Nance, who entered Sunday after scoring 21 points against Iowa. Wagner gave up an inch of height against the 6-foot-10 Nance but limited him to just 10 points on the night — eight of which came in the game’s opening five minutes.
“Franz took the one-on-one challenge of guarding Nance,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “He was really active. He’s becoming more and more of a complete defender. That showed today. Just relying, being the most physical team out there, sticking to our principles, and making them score for us was big today.”
For Wagner, Sunday’s double-double comes on the heels of two other big-time performances. He’s averaging 17.7 points on 53 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2 blocks and 1.7 steals over the last three games after scoring double digits in just two of the Wolverines’ first six outings.
As Wagner puts it all together, his impact is becoming clear at both ends of the floor. He’s taken a more aggressive approach at the offensive end since Michigan’s 12-day break leading up to Christmas, and it’s paying immediate dividends. Defensively, he’s someone Howard can almost always task with guarding the other team’s best player. As Wagner rounds into form, he’s also made strides on the glass and as a facilitator.
With the Northwestern win in hand, Michigan remains one of just three undefeated teams ranked in the AP Poll. But for the Wolverines, that’s not enough.
“We know that we still have more work to do,” senior wing Chaundee Brown said. “We’re not satisfied with 9-0.”
And as Michigan continues to climb, expect to see Wagner at the forefront.