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Franz Wagner’s big night helps Michigan fend off Rutgers

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Wagner tied his season-high with 20 points, but his playmaking stood out most.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Now in his fifth season coaching the Rutgers men’s basketball team, Steve Pikiell has been around the block in the Big Ten. But during the Scarlet Knights’ 71-64 loss to No. 3 Michigan on Thursday night, the Wolverines (15-1) stood out.

“(Michigan) is as good a team I’ve seen in my five years here,” Pikiell said.

And on Thursday, Franz Wagner was the reason why. The sophomore wing tied his season-high with 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed 7 rebounds. On a night that saw Isaiah Livers and Hunter Dickinson shoot a combined 7-of-20 from the field, Wagner’s performance powered the Wolverines past a relentless Rutgers team.

Asked what was working well for Wagner, fifth-year senior guard Mike Smith flashed a smile.

“Everything. That kid is elite,” Smith said. “I’m lucky to be able to play with him. And he works tremendously hard every day and it shows out there. He’s 6-9, 6-10, can dribble, can shoot, can defend — that’s what’s important, get stops. But he played well on the ball, off the ball, so it was a great game for him.”

Wagner was the best player on the floor by a landslide on Thursday, and it showed. His steady play at both ends of the floor helped the Wolverines establish a 17-point lead in the second half. And when Rutgers trimmed its deficit to eight with just under two minutes to play, it was Wagner who stepped up and canned a dagger 3-pointer.

But on Thursday, what stood out most was Wagner’s playmaking. When both teams struggled to score for minutes on end, Wagner was one of the few players who looked comfortable with the ball in his hands. He’s nearly tripled his assists average from his freshman year, which has unlocked new dimensions for Michigan’s offense. That much was evident when he found the Wolverines’ big men for a pair of wrap-around passes that led to dunks on Thursday.

“Those drop-offs today, I didn’t even see those coming out, but he made it happen,” Smith said. “At the beginning of the year, he wouldn’t have made those plays. He’s getting more comfortable. When you get more comfortable, you get confident. When you get confident, you play your game and you have fun. You can see him out there having fun.”

As the season has progressed, Wagner has become increasingly comfortable — and capable — with the ball in his hands. He attributes it to the dribbling work he put in over the summer and his ability to read ball-screen defenses, but to Michigan coach Juwan Howard, Wagner’s approach is the difference-maker.

“Franz is an amazing talent,” Howard said. “He’s also an amazing worker in practice. How he approaches practice is the same way how he approaches games. Very professional, very mature-like, always thriving to get improved. So you can see, like tonight, he was aggressive in spots where he needed to be effective for us.”

Given his 6-foot-10 height and long frame, it’s hard to set a ceiling for Wagner. His lateral quickness and tendency to jump into passing lanes makes him one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive defenders, while his ability to make an impact both on and off the ball at all three levels makes him a great offensive fit for Howard’s NBA-style system.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another player in the country that makes a bigger two-way impact than Wagner. And if Michigan is going to reach its lofty goals, he’ll be at the forefront of the Wolverines’ postseason push.