ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Gnats are small pests. They buzz around you, seemingly microscopic yet still bothering the heck out of you.
It’s kind of hard to view Moritz Wagner as a gnat. Wagner is 6-foot-11. He might not be the thickest guy in the world, but the 19-year-old from Germany is anything but microscopic, even in basketball terms.
Yet Wagner is a gnat, in the eyes of Michigan teammate Derrick Walton Jr., and when that gnat plays like Wagner did Saturday against Purdue, the Wolverines are tough to beat.
Wagner scored a career-high 24 points, 22 of them in the first half, in Michigan’s 82-70 win against the No. 14 Boilermakers. Foul trouble early in the second half limited Wagner to nine minutes of play after halftime, but he had done plenty of damage in the first half on both ends of the court.
“Moe’s a problem. That says a lot. He’s a problem,” said Walton, who was very problematic for Purdue himself, scoring 17 points with a game-high 11 rebounds and five assists without turning the ball over once. “He’s a gnat on defense, and he’s a problem on offense. He gives people fits, and I’m just happy he’s on our side.”
The win boosts Michigan’s resume for an NCAA tournament bid and closed out a strong regular-season home schedule in which the Wolverines (19-10, 9-7 Big Ten) won 15 of 18 games at Crisler Center. The trick will be to take that kind of effort and production on the road at Northwestern (20-9, 9-7) and Nebraska (12-15, 6-9) this week, before the Big Ten Tournament starts March 8 in Washington, D.C.
Wagner made 9 of 12 shots in the first half, including four 3-pointers, as Michigan took a 45-30 halftime lead on Purdue (23-6, 12-4), the Big Ten leaders. He scored 11 points in a 16-4 run that expanded a 20-16 lead with 8:30 left in the first half to 36-20 in less than four minutes. Wagner made a layup off a feed from Walton 14 seconds into the game, then missed his first 3-point attempt.
He made his next seven field-goal attempts in a row.
“Wagner had a great game. He was the difference, not just in the first half, but I thought the whole game,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He set the tone even though he didn’t score much in the second half. His ability to stretch the defense, and their ability to find him in that matchup. He’s a very skilled guy. He can drive the ball and shoot 3s. He’s very talented and had a great game.”
‘He’s got a little chippiness to him’
Wagner wasn’t too interested in talking about his offense, however. He was more focused on the defense he and Michigan played against the Boilermakers, especially sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan.
Swanigan averages a double-double and is the favorite to be named Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s a legitimate national Player of the Year candidate, but Michigan kept him in check Saturday, even though he scored 18 points. Swanigan managed just five rebounds.
The Boilermakers didn’t get a lot of easy looks at the basket.
“I don’t really care about the offense. (The defense) was what made me proud today,” Wagner said. “Regardless of whether we scored or not, we locked in defensively. Whether individually or as a team, we executed the gameplan really well. That was my focus after every basket. I ran back and said ‘Ok, I have to guard a national Player of the Year candidate right now.’ That was fun.”
Wagner is averaging 14.0 points and 4.4 rebounds in Michigan’s 19 wins, shooting 59.1 percent from the field and 46.9 percent from 3-point range. He also has 19 steals and 10 blocked shots in those games. Those numbers drop in the 10 losses – he averages 9.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, shooting 53.2 percent from the field but just 30.8 on his 3-point attempts. Wagner has just seven steals and three blocked shots in those games.
That’s a statistical way of saying when Wagner is active, Michigan is a dangerous team. It’s a good sign that the rest of the team is playing aggressive.
Like a bunch of gnats.
“He’s a guy that’s got a little chippiness to him,” Walton said. “He’s not afraid to let you hear about it. That’s a guy, to me personally, that’s how I grew up playing it. Seeing another guy with that fire just makes you get relaxed and follow suit. I think he adds a different dynamic.”