Moe's moment: Michigan big man Wagner living NCAA dreams

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Moe's moment: Michigan big man Wagner living NCAA dreams
Michigan's Moritz Wagner (13) reacts during the second half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Loyola-Chicago, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — When Moe Wagner gets frustrated during Michigan’s practices, he’ll sometimes turn away from his teammates and let loose with a loud, multisyllabic string of what his teammates can only assume are profanities.

“When he swears in German, that’s the funniest thing ever,” said center Jon Teske, Wagner’s roommate. “He’ll make a mistake or something, and he’ll just go off in the corner and (scream) these really long words. We’ll be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But that emotion is a big part of him.”

More than his size or his vocabulary choices, Wagner’s passion for basketball is his defining feature to teammates and coaches at Michigan. That passion first got him fascinated with college basketball while growing up in a country where the NCAA system is largely unknown, and that passion spurred him to leave Berlin for Ann Arbor to experience it for himself.

“College basketball is crazy,” Wagner said Sunday. “It’s something very unique, and I think people here don’t (understand) how unique it is, because where I’m from, there’s nothing like that.”

Wagner nearly turned pro last summer, but he has turned his extra March at Michigan into a showcase during a series of impressive performances. With strength, skill and enough grace to tiptoe through the television broadcast crew while chasing a loose ball off the elevated Final Four court, Wagner is likely to play a major role in the Wolverines’ attempt to upset mighty Villanova on Monday night.

The rest of the Wolverines realize they’re in their first NCAA Tournament championship game since 2013 largely because their 6-foot-11 center wouldn’t allow them to lose to Loyola-Chicago.

Wagner’s teammates went 4 for 23 in the first half at the Alamodome, and Michigan fell behind the plucky 11th-seeded Ramblers by 10 points before Wagner took charge. The center piled up 24 points and 15 rebounds — including six offensive boards, more than the rest of his team combined — while the Wolverines roared back for a 69-57 win.

Wagner joined Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird as the only players to get 20 points and 15 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament semifinal. He even got the ultimate honor for a German baller: a tweet from Dirk Nowitzki — although Wagner had to be told about it, because he’s trying to stay focused on basketball by deleting Twitter from his phone.

“That made my day,” Wagner said. “I looked it up right away. That was pretty special, because he’s the G.O.A.T. for us.”

Wagner has all proper respect for Nowitzki, yet his favorite player growing up was Kevin Garnett, and his teammates see his emulation of Garnett’s physical, fiery style — hence the swear words.

“Obviously, he’s a little crazy in the head,” Wagner said of Garnett. “But I appreciate that, because I’m a little crazy out there, too.”

When a German coaching friend put Wagner on Michigan coach John Beilein’s radar five years ago, Beilein could tell Wagner wasn’t a normal teenager from their first phone conversation. The German kid was upbeat, personable and completely comfortable speaking with adults an ocean away — but Beilein could only scout him on film.

So Beilein made a one-day trip to Germany. The coach met Wagner and his parents at the Berlin apartment, having a fruitful conversation over the big German meal and beer he had requested.

“When I got in the elevator with the young man, by the time I got out of the elevator, I said, ‘If this kid is good at all, I’m going to give him a scholarship,'” Beilein said. “He was so engaging.”

Wagner was just as eager to learn about Beilein after seeing him on television six months earlier in the 2013 NCAA Tournament finale.

Many young Germans follow the NBA with the same fervor as their American counterparts, but even the concept of college basketball is unfamiliar. Wagner was already a college basketball fan five years ago, constantly staying up late to watch big games even while preparing for his own.

Wagner was on a bus to Hamburg for a game when Michigan lost to Louisville in the Final Four that year. He downloaded the game a day later to watch with a friend who now plays for Alba Berlin, Wagner’s former club in the Basketball Bundesliga.

“It’s funny, because (the friend) watches my games now,” Wagner said with a grin and a voice with barely a trace of a German accent.

Wagner is now in the main event for this distinctly American version of his sport. Back home in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of Berlin, several bars are staying open until the wee hours to allow fans to get a look at the local guy in maize and blue.

“It’s cool to have so many people interested, and to have such a big support system,” Wagner said. “My mom told me the other day that there are so many people who know me and who are calling them all the time. They want to be a part of it. They ask where to watch the games, and that’s something that makes me very proud and happy.”

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