NCAA Tournament notebook: Franz Wagner's versatility makes Michigan Elite
Through the NCAA Tournament, Michigan has found ways to make up for the production lost by Isaiah Livers’ injury.
Brandon Johns helps. The 6-8 junior is starting in Livers’ spot at power forward in the Wolverines’ lineup, and against Florida State Sunday evening he had another big game, scoring a team-high tying 14 points with six rebounds in Michigan’s 76-58 Sweet 16 win.
But for the Wolverines, like much of the rest of the season, contributions have come from a bit of everywhere. And Franz Wagner has raised his level, as well. The versatile wing — he’s 6-9 but has the face-up game envied by many guards — scored 13 points with 10 rebounds and 5 assists, helping the Wolverines slice up the Seminoles’ defense.
“Franz has developed and has gotten better every year,” coach Juwan Howard said in his media interview after the game. “… He’s been a joy to coach. My staff will agree. He’s a guy who has a high IQ, high ceiling, loves basketball, a grinder. And today, the impact he had on the game, like his teammates, was extremely effective with the ball in his hands and on the defensive end.”
Before the game, much of the talk centered around Florida State’s height, with the Seminoles averaging 6-8 along their starting five, one of the biggest groups in the NCAA. And because FSU is long and athletic, it’s extremely efficient on defense, as it switches ball screens to try to stymy the opponent’s offense.
But rather than be intimidated by it, the Wolverines took advantage of it, finding mismatches and exploiting them, particularly on the inside. Michigan had 50 points in the paint, more than enough to make up for only making three 3-pointers.
“We knew coming in that they were going to switch a lot of ball screens, basically everything, so we tried to move the ball,” Wagner said. “I think people get in trouble just holding the ball and dribbling. So I think we moved the ball pretty well and attacked closeouts. Getting the ball inside outside and moving people on defense and I think that’s how we got open.”
Wagner was a centerpiece to the effort, finding seams in the FSU defense to get to the hoop.
“For myself, I always try to attack the basket, be aggressive,” he said, “but all that only happens when we move the ball and don’t dribble too much, that’s when everything really opens up.”
The Wolverines are in the Elite Eight for the 4th time since the 2013 season, a solid streak of success for the Big Ten program.
They’ll play 11 seed UCLA late on Tuesday night for a chance to go to the Final Four. It’d be their third such trip since 2013, although the previous two (2013 and ’18) ended with losses in the national championship game.
Wagner says being back in the spotlight is “cooler” now considering what the last year has been like, enduring a global pandemic that canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
“Like every team in the world, last year was tough with COVID and having to test every day and obviously last year being cut short,” he said. “We wanted it that much more because of that.”
Credit the scouts
Michigan can’t replicate Florida State’s size on the perimeter, with every one of the Seminoles’ starters being at least 6-4, but the Wolverines tried to as best as possible in the days leading up to the game.
Howard says Michigan was well aware of its height deficit because it’s all it heard about all week.
“We sure did,” Howard said, “and we did a really good preparing for it. You can’t duplicate it in practice because you don’t have the Florida State roster, but it was great just to know as far as our guys buying in — our scout team — watching film and studying Florida State’s offense and the players’ strengths. When it came to preparation, I was really proud of how the scout team really bought in.”
Going the distance
Fellow No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Baylor might be the odds-on favorites to meet in the National Championship game.
But FSU coach Leonard Hamilton says to not count out the Wolverines.
“If Michigan plays as well as they played today in terms of their focus and execution and their spacing, the way they were connected today, they were almost flawless in their execution,” Hamilton said. “I was extremely impressed with how they were ready to play, they maintained their composure, from start to finish.”