SAN ANTONIO — As the biggest game in Moe Wagner’s young life creeps closer, you snap back to a conversation from six months earlier, when it was summer, not winter, that wouldn’t take the hint and just go the hell away already.
It was a muggy October afternoon in New York, and you’d asked Wagner, Michigan’s Teutonic tower of a power forward, why he’d decided to come back to Ann Arbor for his junior season. Why the NBA could wait.
“People come up to me all the time — it’s kind of cool — to tell me, ‘Thanks for coming back,’ ” Wagner said then, just before the circus that was Big Ten basketball media day at Madison Square Garden folded up its collective tents. “I don’t like it when people tell me, ‘You made the right decision,’ because what do you know?”
Moe smiled at that one.
“No, I’m really happy, seriously,” he continued. “I love Michigan. And I love Ann Arbor. I love my teammates. I just didn’t feel that way. I just didn’t feel a need, the urgency, to leave there.
“So it’s like, I’m really chill, you know?”
‘I think I can prove that I’m a consistent basketball player. Not just a fair- [or] good-weather player who has a big game, sometimes, and sometimes doesn’t appear at all on the basketball court.’
— Michigan forward Moe Wagner, on his 2017-18 goals
You asked if the choices ate him up inside, some days. If it was hard.
“Oh, very,” Wagner countered.
“I’m not lying. Especially for somebody — I love home, because you don’t have to move. And being on the road is like, hard, man.
“You’re on the road, you have a workout … but still, it’s like, man. And it’s tiring, too, just to talk about [it] every day, and you can’t sleep, because you have this decision on your mind.
“Once I made the decision, I felt so good … I finally could sleep again, and it was so relieving. And I was very happy with the decision I made.”
You asked about the Sweet 16 in 2017. About unfinished business.
“I think I have a lot more to prove on this level, individually,” the Michigan forward replied, then rattled off his 2018 bucket list.
“As a leader for a team — you know, I think that’s something that I haven’t shown yet, that much. So I can’t wait to prove that.
“I think I can prove that I’m a consistent basketball player. Not just a fair- [or] good-weather player who has a big game, sometimes, and sometimes doesn’t appear at all on the basketball court.
“And, I think, be a way better rebounder than I’ve shown [last year].
“And that I’m actually good defensively.
“And can lead the team with those three intangibles. So I think that’s what I have to do.”
Games in which Wagner failed to score in double-digits in 2016-17: 15
Gamed in which Wagner failed to score in double-digits in 2017-18: 6
Wagner’s boards per game in 2016-17: 4.2
Wagner’s boards per game in 2017-18: 7.1
Wagner’s Defensive Rating — estimated points allowed per 100 possessions — on Sports-Reference.com in 2016-17: 101.6
Wagner’s Defensive Rating in 2017-18: 91.6
In other words, he did what he promised, all those games and weeks and dreams ago. Now Wagner stands one victory away from getting what he really came back for. A banner.