SAN ANTONIO – Moe Wagner was one of the most memorable players in this NCAA tournament even before he carried Michigan to its first national championship game in five years.
There was the moment he embraced teary-eyed Houston player Corey Davis Jr. while his teammates jumped for joy to celebrate Jordan Poole’s game-winning three-pointer to send the Wolverines to the Sweet 16.
There was the fact that the 6-foot-11 junior from Berlin, who idolized NBA star Dirk Nowitzki growing up, basically put college hoops on the map in Germany with media and fans from his home country hooked on March Madness.
And, of course, there are the many facial expressions of Wagner that Monday’s opponent and No. 1 seed Villanova will see firsthand, enough to put Moe from the Three Stooges to shame.
“Moe has many faces,” Michigan senior Duncan Robinson said. “He’s got celebratory ones after he makes a big play, frustrated at the officials, confused, ugly ones. He’s got a whole bunch of them.”
One face Wagner didn’t have was a poker face trying to downplay the significance of joining Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to have a 20-point, 15-rebound game in the Final Four in the last 40 years.
“Relax,” he told himself out loud at the postgame news conference before saying that in the 24-point, 15-rebound performance in the 69-57 win Saturday against Loyola-Chicago he was “just trying to do my job.”
Entering Monday’s NCAA title game, Wagner is the best player on the best team left from the Big Ten. Instead of Michigan State and All-America Miles Bridges trying to end the league’s 18-year national championship drought like everyone expected going into the season, it’s the other team from Michigan led by its hug-you-when-you’re-crying German sensation and emotional leader.
“What are his strengths still is just his love for this game and love for Michigan and his teammates,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “And that’s meant so much. When he was a freshman, he would have a good game, then he would have a game that he was still learning the game. We had to get him right out of there. It didn’t change him. The next day it was like, ‘Coach, how are you?’ ”
Beilein turned to his left at Sunday’s news conference: “I do good imitations of you,” he said to Wagner.
He knows Wagner like a son now, but Beilein knew nothing about him except for a five-minute highlight video sent to him by e-mail from an international scout in 2014. Wagner was 16 at the time and playing for Alba Berlin, a prominent pro basketball club in Germany.
Beilein saw enough to fly 4,000 miles from Michigan to meet with Wagner’s family before the 2014-15 season. “It’s a heck of a trip,” Wagner joked, cracking profanely about Berlin’s airports. “So you have to fly to Amsterdam or New York first. You can plan a 13-hour to 14-hour trip.”
Beilein didn’t offer a scholarship on the spot, but he invited the bright-eyed foreign prospect to visit campus in Ann Arbor. Wagner knew the veteran Wolverines coach from watching his national runner-up finish to Louisville in 2013. He called it “kind of crazy” that they ended up making the Final Four together years later.
“I had no idea back then,” Wagner said. “So as a little kid, to see him in my living room, come over during the preseason in October, that’s something really special for a couple of hours just to meet my family and see where I’m from. That’s really cool.”
In May 2015, Wagner signed a letter of intent to play for the Wolverines. By then, he was a 6-10 four-star recruit known for unlimited shooting range, like a young Nowitzki. But he was barely 200 pounds. Not the frame that would be tough enough to bang inside and handle the physical grind of the Big Ten.
“First two years were really hard,” Wagner, who now weighs 245, said. “I remember the first time [strength coach Jon Sanderson] said, ‘you got to eat five boiled eggs a day.’ All these cereals and protein shakes. I was like, ‘What?’ ”
As a freshman in 2015-16, Wagner averaged just 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds playing behind older posts Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle, who later transferred to Clemson and Florida Gulf Coast. The following year, Wagner and D.J. Wilson emerged as a talented young Michigan frontcourt and helped to lead the Wolverines to the Sweet 16.
Wagner had a better season statistically than Wilson (12.1 points to 11.0), but Wilson declared early for the NBA Draft. The 6-10 junior was the 17th pick in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Taking his game to another level this season without Wilson, Wagner put up career-highs in points (14.6), rebounds (7.1) and three-point percentage (39.7). The Big Ten tournament most valuable player award was only the beginning of his brilliance this postseason.
Wagner’s decision to play for Michigan and pursue a championship made all the special moments in this year’s NCAA tournament possible.
“There are people who are inspired and encouraged to go to college [from Germany], because it worked out for me,” Wagner said. “I always tell them that I was very lucky.”