LOS ANGELES — The first time Moritz Wagner met his future college coach, John Beilein, at his home in Berlin, the only reason he recognized him was because he had watched Michigan play in the Final Four.
“That’s kind of ironic,” Wagner said with a broad smile last Saturday evening. “Now we’re here together.”
The “here” Wagner was referring to — while sitting next to the West Region trophy — was San Antonio, where the Wolverines will face Loyola Chicago on Saturday in the Final Four. It will be Michigan’s first trip to college basketball’s signature event since Beilein led it to the national championship game in 2013 — and the Wolverines will be there, in large part, because of that fateful trip Beilein took to talk to a player he had only seen on video.
It was far from the first time Beilein had made such a trip. He successfully recruited Johannes Herber to West Virginia, where he was part of teams that made it to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in back-to-back years. He also tried to recruit Niels Giffey, who would go on to play at Connecticut.
Beilein’s journey with Wagner began with an email featuring video of Wagner playing. After it sat in his inbox for a couple weeks — “My email gets stacked up a little bit,” Beilein said with a smile — he eventually watched it, then got on the phone with Wagner.
“The energy on the phone was incredible,” Beilein said. “So I just said: ‘You know what? We can’t, like, sit on this. I think this kid is going to be pretty good, but nobody’s been over to see him. I’m going over to see him.’ Because there is no high school basketball in Europe, the NCAA doesn’t allow us to go watch him play. You can only see people in scholastic. So I had to do it off film.
“But I did go to visit him in his flat. I asked for a big German dinner and a beer. I got both of them. That was it.”
Wagner eventually committed and, after arriving for the 2015-16 season, has slowly developed into an essential part of Beilein’s team. Given the way Beilein has always schooled his teams to play — with an emphasis on ball movement, spacing the floor and shooting from the perimeter — having a center such as Wagner, who’s nearly 7 feet tall and can shoot from beyond the three-point line, is invaluable.
After playing sparingly as a freshman, he blossomed into a key contributor last year as a sophomore, averaging 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 56.0 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He declared for the NBA draft a year ago but returned to school, where he has taken those numbers a step further — 14.3 points and 6.9 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting overall and 39.6 percent from three, both on higher volume.
“I kind of felt home in Ann Arbor on my visit,” Wagner said of how he chose Michigan. “They presented a great opportunity for me.
“Even though I made it seem really hard, it was an easy decision at the end of the day,” he added with a smile. “I’m very glad I made it.”
It’s a decision that has led him to the Final Four — an experience he will be able to share with his family. While he wouldn’t talk about it before winning the West Region, Wagner said his parents were planning to come to San Antonio.
They, along with many other friends and family members, have been watching back in Germany with great interest as Wagner and the Wolverines have gone through the tournament, holding watch parties in the middle of the night to watch Michigan advance.
“It’s a pretty cool thing,” he said. “It’s pretty special for me. My mom told me the other day that there are so many people that obviously know me from being little, but I don’t know them. They call all the time. They kind of want to be part of it. They ask where to watch the games, and that’s something that makes me very proud and happy. It’s something very special.”
Now he and his teammates are hoping to get two more victories this weekend to cap this run through the tournament — and a run of 13 straight wins since a loss at Northwestern on Feb. 6. And right in the middle of it all has been Wagner, the kid who nearly got lost in Beilein’s inbox, but someone the coach was convinced would sign with Michigan after spending just a few moments with him on an elevator.
“When I got in the elevator with the young man, a small elevator, and went up, by the time I got out of the elevator — they talk about an elevator conversation — I said, ‘If this kid’s good at all, I’m going to give him a scholarship,’ ” Beilein said. “He was so engaging. What you see right there is who he is.”
Because of who he is — and because Beilein found him — Michigan is in the Final Four.
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