Moe Wagner's Michigan career really is a dream come true

Editor's note: This story was originally published Tuesday. It has been updated to reflect Michigan's Final Four win over Loyola-Chicago on Saturday.

One early morning in April 2013, a towering but spindly 15-year-old boy from Berlin settled in front of his television to watch an American college basketball spectacle known as -- somewhat confusingly, given the month -- March Madness.

What most left an impression on the teen from that weekend of games was Michigan, a team stocked with NBA-caliber talents such as Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary that ultimately lost in the championship game.

Moritz Wagner, that almost-7-foot German hoops wunderkind, envisioned himself in those maize-and-blue uniforms and playing in a Final Four for head coach John Beilein, just like those guys. In his mind, the distance -- figuratively and literally -- from Berlin to Ann Arbor to the game's biggest stage didn't seem so far.

Those memories came flooding back to Wagner -- now 20 and known as "Moe" these days -- deep in the bowels of the Staples Center in Los Angeles last week after guiding the Wolverines to the Final Four.

His teenage dreams, it turned out, had come true.

"It's pretty crazy. ... I only knew him from the Final Four," Wagner said of Beilein. "That's kind of ironic. Now we're here together."

And they will remain in San Antonio for one more game after Michigan beat Loyola-Chicago 69-57 in the national semifinal, led by Wagner's 24 points and 15 rebounds. Wagner has been the anchor of Michigan's second Final Four team in five seasons, averaging career highs of 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 42 percent from 3-point range.

He has been at something close to his best during the Wolverines' current 14-game win streak, earning Most Outstanding Player honors during the Big Ten tournament and dropping 21 points on the big and athletic Texas A&M front line -- including projected lottery pick Robert Williams -- in the Sweet 16.

But in the victory that clinched the Wolverines' ticket to San Antonio, Wagner battled through one of his worst statistical games of the season. He went 3-of-11 from the field, missing all seven of his 3-point attempts, to finish with an inefficient 12 points and six rebounds in Michigan's workmanlike 58-54 victory over Florida State in the Elite Eight.

His substandard performance revealed not only the strides he has made in his game since arriving from Berlin in 2015, but his growth in the year following his flirtation with the NBA draft.

Against a Florida State defense backed by a pair of centers who stand 7-4 and 7-0, Wagner still continued to attack on offense, resulting in a game-high eight free throw attempts (he made six). He also contributed a defense that limited the Seminoles to their worst offensive game of the season, with their centers combining for a single field goal.

And most importantly, for a player known to occasionally let his emotions overwhelm him, Wagner maintained his composure despite offensive struggles and foul trouble that kept him on the bench for much of the game's final 10 minutes.

"It speaks to the maturation of his game," said Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington, who has worked closely with Wagner the past couple of years. "After the summer, he was really motivated to come back and be a better version of himself."

And after the final buzzer Saturday, after the Wolverines were showered in maize and blue confetti, after they were hustled onto a stage for a trophy presentation, after saluting fans with their renowned alma mater, Wagner found himself at the center of every large scrum of reporters and fans.

With a new Final Four cap atop his head and a strand of freshly snipped net around his neck, Wagner was the beaming -- if occasionally smirking -- face of the Victors.

"I'm gonna wear this everywhere," Wagner said of the net, in the concourse just outside of the locker room after the game. Then, in a sing-song voice, he said, "Champions of the West!"

Looking on admiringly was Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel. "It's special to have Moe to be one of the stars of our program," Manuel said. "He's just a great young man. I don't really care where he comes from if he's like that."

In a country where basketball trails far behind soccer in popularity, the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki and former NBA star Detlef Schrempf established a standard to emulate for a versatile, stretch power forward like Wagner. And while their influence and style is clearly all over his game, the famously fiery Wagner found inspiration in another NBA legend - albeit one from South Carolina.

"Kevin Garnett was my idol growing up," Wagner said. "Just with his intensity and energy, obviously he's a little crazy in the head. But I appreciate that because I'm a little crazy out there too."

Few college basketball origin stories get their start in Germany, but Wagner's ascendance in Ann Arbor and now the NCAA tournament comes as little surprise to him or those who've known him since he was a teenager in Berlin.

A year after that 2013 Final Four appearance, Wagner came to the attention of Beilein via an email from an old coaching acquaintance in Germany. Beilein watched some video of the young German prospect and then got on the phone with Johannes Herber, a German native who played for Beilein at West Virginia from 2002 to '06.

"I knew [Wagner] was held in high regard as a great prospect for the local club in Berlin and also for the national youth team," said Herber, who played professionally in Europe for a few years. Recalling a nearly 7-foot former Mountaineers teammate who was best on the perimeter, Herber was convinced Wagner could play for Beilein. "I knew from the way coach used Kevin [Pittsnogle] that Moe could be a good fit in that offense."

Beilein didn't need much convincing: he called Wagner, had a few conversations, and soon booked a flight to Berlin to meet with him and his family.

"So I just said, you know what? We can't like sit on this," Beilein said. "I think this kid is going to be pretty good, but nobody's been over to see him."

Beilein visited Wagner and his family at their home in Berlin and then sold them on the merits of the college experience as opposed to signing with his German club Alba Berlin. Wagner, who had already finished school, was weighing the option of signing a professional contract or following his American dream.

So he, too, reached out to Herber.

"He was just curious. It's easy to fall in love watching college basketball on TV and want to be here," Herber said. "And the good thing about Moe is that he was very confident about his ability. You can come here and be a little bit intimidated by the confidence and swagger some of the other players have."

He paused, then laughed. "Moe didn't have to worry about that."

Wagner committed to Michigan in April 2015, a one-man recruiting class for Beilein and the Wolverines. "I kind of felt home in Ann Arbor on my visit," Wagner said. "It was an easy decision at the end of the day."

As expected, it wasn't all storybook endings from there. As a freshman, Wagner struggled with homesickness, limited playing time on a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and the differences between German and American culture -- ranging from the food to having a roommate to struggling to learn all of the playcalls in English.

"That was all tough for him," said forward Brent Hibbitts, Wagner's freshman-year roommate. "But he persevered."

Wagner proved to be a quick learner and by the next season had evolved into one of the nation's most-promising players, averaging 12 points on 56 percent shooting, including 40 percent from 3-point range. His admiration of Garnett also apparently rubbed off, with Wagner even getting Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to call him a "pain in the butt" following an 86-57 loss to the Wolverines in February 2017.

Izzo was referring to Wagner's widely acknowledged tendency to let his emotions get the best of him, allowing harmless trash talk to occasionally escalate into the darker on-court arts of shoving and maybe an extracurricular elbow or two.

In the blowout win over Michigan State in Ann Arbor, Wagner and Spartans forward Nick Ward had been jawing all game before Ward appeared to trip Wagner as they crossed paths during a timeout. Ward insisted he didn't intentionally trip Wagner, and Izzo didn't let the incident pass without pointing out Wagner's antics. "Let's not kid each other here about what goes on," Izzo said.

"Sometimes we have to bring him down to earth," said Michigan sophomore center Jon Teske, who rooms with Wagner on the road. "He tries to calm himself down. But I don't know how much that helps."

In a kind of tribute to Garnett, Wagner returned for his junior season determined to be as much of a team leader, rebounder and defender as he was a scorer, hoping to shore up some of the weaknesses scouts and analysts identified when he went through the draft process last spring.

And when his shot betrayed him with Michigan's season on the line against Florida State on Saturday, Wagner found other ways to affect the game and help the Wolverines outlast a team that committed much of its defensive game plan to shutting him down. Just like his American idol.

"When you're not making shots, it's not as fun," Wagner admitted. "But I just tried to keep going and to affect the game in other ways."

Now, five years after capturing the imagination of the then-teenage Wagner, Michigan is winning over a whole new group of German fans.

"He's a celebrity there," said Jurgen Schmieder, a U.S. correspondent for the Suddeutsche Zeitung -- one of Germany's largest daily newspapers -- and former soccer player at Michigan. "In major cities, bars have stayed open so you could come in at 1 a.m. and watch the game and cheer him on."