ANN ARBOR, Mich. ― The crowd inside the Crisler Center roared it approval as the Michigan basketball team was introduced before its home game Monday night against Maryland. The Wolverines were coming off an emotional 82-72 win at rival Michigan State two days beforehand and were ranked among the top 25 teams in the country ― No. 23 by the AP to be exact ― for the first time all season.
The lights inside the arena were darkened, enhancing the spotlight and heightening the anticipation with the names of each starter.
“At forward, a 6-11 junior from Berlin, Germany, No. 13, Mo-hhhhhhh Vaaahhhhggner,” cried the public-address announcer, accentuating the nickname and last name of Moritz Wagner. The crowd cheered wildly, the same way it does for every home game.
Three years ago, Wagner came to Ann Arbor from Berlin as a 6-foot-9-inch prospect who had played for his club team, Alba Berlin. NBA scouts already were looking at him, and he tested the possibility of turning pro last summer before deciding to return to Michigan for at least one more season. Wagner is a fan favorite and will be a key factor in determining just how good the Wolverines can be this season and how far they can go in March.
Julius Welschof is expected to arrive in Ann Arbor in June. He’s a 6-6, 250-pound football player from Miesbach, Germany, signed as part of Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class as a defensive end. He has dreams of playing in the NFL, of playing like J.J. Watt and Joey Bosa.
‘I know I have to work harder than everybody’
Google Maps says it’s a six-hour drive from Berlin in the north part of Germany to Miesbach in Bavaria in the southern end. Wagner and Welschof don’t know each other and never have spoken to one another, but can Wagner’s experiences at Michigan be an indication of what’s to come from Welschof?
“Well, he plays football, so I hope he can expect to play some football,” joked Wagner, “but other than that I think he can expect a really cool city, a really cool university and a lot of cool people. Obviously, a great coach and a great culture that has been established here.”
Joining a basketball team as one of 15 to 20 players on the roster is different from joining a football team that will have more than 100 players, 84 of whom will be on scholarship just like Welschof. Wagner’s playing experience at Alba Berlin prepared him well for what he would face in college basketball. Welschof played for a club team in Munich, but the level of competition and depth of quality players will be nothing like what he will face when he gets to Michigan.
“I know I have to work harder than everybody to get bigger, to understand the game, because I know they are probably one step ahead of me because they’ve played high school football,” Welschof told Land of 10. “I need people who are better than me because I hate being second place. Michigan is a good place to compete with good people. I think if you compete with good people, you get better, too.”
Welschof likened it to his experience when he switched teams as a competitive skier growing up.
“I went to a better team and I got better myself because I had better teammates with the ski team,” he said.
The University of Michigan has students from 122 countries, according to the university’s admissions website, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. More than one-third of those students are undergrads. Applicants must take an English proficiency exam, and freshmen are expected to submit ACT or SAT exams that include writing as well.
Welschof speaks English fluently to go along with his native German. He plans to study industrial engineering. Welschof was committed to Georgia Tech, which along with Michigan has two of the top engineering schools in the U.S., before changing his mind and signing with Michigan. He is in good shape academically to fit in at Michigan.
Adapting culturally will be the bigger challenge.
Wagner said he finds the different approach to life between Germany and the U.S. “interesting.”
It was an adjustment for his coaches and teammates as well.
“He had a different lifestyle,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “Everything was different, the way they play basketball, so it was a little different but he was also a unicorn when he got here. Not many people knew how to guard him and things like that. He was unknown to everybody.
“We had to get acclimated to him. We didn’t try to change him at all. We tried to adjust to him. I think that’s worked out.”
Wagner is averaging 14.9 points per game through the first 20 games of the season, tied with sophomore guard Charles Matthews for the team high, and leads the Wolverines in rebounding with a 7.2-per-game average. He is also carrying above a 3.0 GPA in his sports management major, according to coach John Beilein.
“For an 18-year-old kid I’m sure there are challenges that I don’t know about, but at the same time, [Wagner]’s such a bright young man, such a personable young man, he made friends immediately,” Beilein said. “There were times he was learning to do things, but then to put them in basketball terms, to learn to speak our language was a whole new thing from what his basketball language was, but it’s been one of the smoothest transitions I’ve ever seen.”
Different paths, same Ann Arbor destination
Beilein went to Germany on multiple occasions to watch Wagner play and recruit him.
Welschof’s recruitment differed greatly. He was unknown to most college coaches until he went on the football camp tour last June with Premier Players International. That tour included a stop at Michigan, where he first met defensive line coach Greg Mattison, defensive coordinator Don Brown and coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines didn’t offer Welschof a scholarship right away. In fact, they didn’t offer him a scholarship until four days before the beginning of the early signing period in December.
Mattison went to visit Welschof in Germany last weekend.
— juliuswelschof (@JuliusWelschof) January 14, 2018
“I think coach really liked the trip to the top of a local mountain and the typical Bavarian restaurant we went to afterward,” Welschof said.
Welschof is off to a good start building relationships with his coaches. He’ll soon get started doing the same with teammates; he said he hopes to meet up with the team when it travels to France in the spring before he arrives on campus in June.
Wagner could be gone from Ann Arbor by then, headed to the NBA. Regardless, he has created the path and shown Welschof an example of what awaits him.