The Michigan Wolverines’ basketball program (and all of college basketball for that matter) had been living in a world of uncertainty from mid-March until mid-September, not knowing when their 2020-21 season would tip off.
The basketball world finally received that answer on Sept. 16, with the NCAA Division 1 Council announcing the campaign would begin on Nov. 25, surprisingly just two weeks later than it had originally been slated to start.
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Michigan Wolverines basketball guard Franz Wagner was a four-star prospect out of high school. (AP Images)
“We went a long time with uncertainty and not even knowing whether or not we’d have a season,” Michigan sophomore guard Franz Wagner explained on FOX college basketball reporter Andy Katz’s podcast today.
“We’re all motivated and ready to go, and now have that goal in mind for Nov. 25 when we play Villanova. It’s a lot easier to be motivated and go to work in practice every day to try and get better.
“Our team has a lot of weapons offensively — we have big bodies who can move defensively as well. We’re versatile with guys who can do stuff with the ball and make good decisions.
“I also think we’ll be a better shooting team with [fifth-year senior point guard] Mike [Smith] and [senior guard] Eli [Brooks], because they’re two great guards who can really shoot the ball.
“I’m very excited for this team.”
The Maize and Blue experienced immense ups and downs in 2019-20, before the campaign culminated with a 19-12 record and a 10-10 mark in Big Ten play. Michigan’s season came to an abrupt end at the Big Ten Tournament in mid-March, with the entire event getting canceled just 15 minutes before the Wolverines were set to take the court to play Rutgers.
“We were still locked in and had our normal routine before that game,” Wagner recalled. “It wasn’t a huge surprise, for me at least, that they called the game off. It was still a crazy moment — the anxiety and nervousness you have before a game was still there.
“We’re more excited now for this upcoming season after everyone went through that experience.”
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It seems unlikely that fans will be at college basketball games around the nation once the season tips off (at least to begin the year), though the prospect of crowds is one of the countless details surrounding the 2020-21 campaign that still need to be ironed out.
Katz asked Wagner how strange it will potentially be playing in empty arenas this winter, with the sophomore guard explaining it may not be quite as unusual as some think.
“The bench will be a huge part of how good teams are, because that’s how you create your energy,” Wagner noted. “That’s just part of having a deep roster and having guys who are engaged all the time.
“The best teams in the NBA have a lot of guys on the bench who are very emotional. Guys in college play in scrimmages all the time, so being motivated and staying locked in won’t be too hard for the players.”
Playing in empty arenas around the Big Ten would certainly make it easier to win at several of the most raucous environments in the conference, such as Indiana’s Assembly Hall, Purdue’s Mackey Arena, etc.
Fans or no fans, the Big Ten is nevertheless expected to be arguably the best conference in the nation in 2020-21, thanks to the surprisingly large number of underclassmen who decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to their respective schools (Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosonmu and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn, Iowa senior center Luka Garza, etc.).
“There are a bunch of elite players in our league,” Wagner exclaimed. “I’m excited for that, because it means we’ll have a lot of good games where we can get better as a team.
“It’s good for everybody on the team to have those opportunities. Every game is an opportunity to prove ourselves and to get better.”
Katz also asked Wagner where he’d like to improve individually as a player, following a stellar freshman campaign that saw him average 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
“I think I’ll be more consistent on both sides of the court — that’s what I hope to be at least,” the sophomore noted. “I hope to handle the ball a little more and make better decisions.
“With X [former point guard Zavier Simpson] gone, more guys will have to step up. I try to get better every day defensively; I think I played solid last year, but there’s always room to improve.
“I’m trying to be a good two-way player.”
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