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Franz Wagner shows he might be the key to Michigan’s championship pursuit

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

The Michigan Wolverines are locked in as a legitimate national title contender and one of the best all-around teams in college basketball. They are talented, deep, well-coached and poised for any and every test that comes their way.

That might be enough for Michigan to compete for a national championship this March on its own. But there is always an extra bit of magic needed to push you over the top this time of year.

Cue Franz Wagner’s music.

Michigan’s 79-57 win over No. 9 Iowa on Thursday night was a team effort on both sides of the floor. However, it was a push from Wagner on the stat sheet early in the second half that helped the Wolverines casually rout another elite team out of Crisler Center.

Wagner scored 13 of his 21 points on the night in the final 20 minutes of play. Nine of those points came in the first four minutes of the second half. And just for good measure, he made sure to close out the game with a jump shot that gave the Wolverines the 22-point lead that would hold as the clocks hit zero.

“The second half, man, Franz Wagner came out of nowhere. No one wanted to stop ’em,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said after the victory. “When he’s aggressive and locked in, we’re definitely the best team in the country. That gives us multiple guys that can take the ball to the paint, find an open guy, then turn around and be a two-way player. We have nothing but two-way players on this team.”

Wagner’s presence was felt all night with his length and athleticism on display, as well as his elite passing ability. Head coach Juwan Howard saw the full picture of his sophomore wing during Thursday night’s victory.

“Franz did more than just in the second half,” Howard said. “Franz did a great job of making some really good decisions with the basketball in the first half. There was a drive where we are looking to go into the post. He drove it baseline and finished because Iowa is a very good defensive team — everyone talks about their offense, but they’re very good defensively for a reason. Because of the effort and energy that they bring and also they’re a very well-coached team.

“Second half, everyone’s gonna make adjustments. I trusted our guys were gonna make shots that will fall and normally has fallen for them before in past games. I thought in the first half, we rushed some shots and missed some layups. We got some paint touches but couldn’t finish. But second half, Franz, Isaiah, Chaundee (Brown), they made some really good plays. Then Brandon (Johns) made a really good play for us offensively, too. It was a total team effort.”

Wagner has a case as Michigan’s best all-around player and has the ability to take over on any given night. The process of getting there has seen the coaching staff taking him from the raw ball of clay he was coming in and making him fit within the confines of the system in place. The effort has been put in by both Wagner and the staff and now we are witnessing the fruits of that labor.

A burgeoning strength of what he brings to the table is the aptitude to get his teammates involved.

“He’s worked on it (since) last year,” Howard said. “The first half of the season he struggled. (The coaches) had a really good meeting and (they) will tell you the strong emphasis of mine was that we gotta get Franz better involved in screen actions. Franz has always been the type of guy who loves getting into the gym, working on his game, never made excuses for himself. He’s accepted it and he’s gotten better and better with it. And I’m not surprised. When someone works on it, good things happen.”

The kitchen sink has been thrown at the German guard/forward in his two years on a college campus, including the cancelation of the NCAA Tournament in his first year in America. Losing out on that type of stage and showcase had to have hit a little harder, but the chance to make noise there has returned.

He is ready for the chance, but there is still work to be done.

“Very excited,” Wagner said. “Do-or-die games are definitely a little different. I’m very excited to see what the feel is when March Madness starts, but we’ve got four more games to play before it all starts. Then we’ll be ready for the Big Ten Tournament.”

The fact that he echoes his head coach’s attitude on staying in the moment speaks to how his sponge-like ability to adapt to his circumstances.

“To be honest with you, I’m just looking at it one game at a time,” Howard said. “I’m not looking into March. We’re gonna focus on what we just did. What we just accomplished is special. And then, wake up in the morning, our focus is gonna be on Indiana.”