SAN ANTONIO — As a youngster in Germany, Moritz Wagner used to watch the NCAA Tournament when he should have been sleeping. He was undeterred by the fact the games came on at 3 a.m. Having especially enjoyed watching Michigan play, he felt like he was dreaming when the Big Dance came to life in the form of coach John Beilein showing up in his living room.
Beilein had flown all the way there to talk about the possibility of Wagner (pronounced Vohgg-ner, like the composer) playing for the Wolverines. “It’s a really cool story,” said the player who is now a versatile 6-11 junior who has written his own memorable story, helping Michigan reach the championship game against Villanova here Monday night.
Wagner really appreciates the coach’s effort now that he has made the journey each way numerous times. “It’s a heck of a trip because Berlin’s airports (expletive). You have to fly to Amsterdam or New York first. So, you can plan on a 13 to 15-hour trip,” the player said. “He did that in October during that preseason, I think they had just come back from their Italy trip. I think he prepared practice (schedules) on that flight. Pretty sick.”
It is a tribute to Beilein’s attentiveness and Wagner’s development that the team breezed past the inspired Loyola-Chicago squad Saturday night and qualified for the title game. The coach leaves nothing to chance, players say, obsessing over a November preseason tournament game in a tiny Maui gym as if it were the national final in a huge dome.
And Wagner progressed from a somewhat homesick kid struggling to learn English to a team leader who knows the nuances of basketball and the language. “People always say ‘This is a dream of mine’ but they actually mean ‘This is a goal of mine.’ It’s a very fine line,” the forward said before practice on Sunday. He added that he never set the Final Four as a goal because it is just so enormous a climb.
He was captivated by March Madness years ago, watching on TV. “College basketball is crazy, it’s something very unique. I don’t think people here have an imagination of how unique it is. Where I’m from there’s nothing like it,” he said.
Beilein’s team made a big impression on Wagner, especially when it played in the 2013 final. By then, Wagner was playing on a club team and was unable to watch it live. He downloaded it and watched it on a bus trip to Hamburg, “with a good friend of mine who watches my games now.”
Wagner patched together a personal highlight video and emailed it to Beilein, who eventually found it in his spam folder. Not too long after that, the coach was on his way to Berlin. Fast forward to Saturday, and the kid was scoring 24 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and receiving praise on Twitter from one of his countryman and idol, NBA star Dirk Nowitzki. “Made my day,” Wagner said.
Villanova coach Jay Wright spent Sunday trying to figure a way to stop Wagner. “In the Loyola game, he faked a shot with his right hand and threw a lefthanded bounce pass backdoor for a layup. Who does that? You don’t see point guards do that.”
Wright was not the least surprised that Beilein landed such a talented player. When Wright was a first-year assistant coach at the University of Rochester, a Division III school, he often lost upstate New York recruiting battles against Beilein, head coach of Division II LeMoyne. “He was young then, too, but just the greatest guy,” Wright said.
The Michigan coach and his tallest starter know what it means to have come a long way, in more ways than one. Wagner said that, while the NCAA Final never was truly a goal, “This literally is a dream come true for me.”