Wagner, Smith Keep U-M’s Good Times Rolling, Turn Their Focus Toward OSU

Michigan Wolverines basketball sophomore guard Franz Wagner finished as the leading scorer in tonight’s 71-64 win over Rutgers, wrapping up his evening with 20 points. His outing tied his season high, with the 6-9 guard also pouring in 20 in U-M’s Christmas Day win at Nebraska.

Wagner did a little bit of everything against the Scarlet Knights, connecting on three of his four three-point attempts, pulling down seven rebounds and converting five of his six free throws.

RELATED: Michigan Takes Down Rutgers, 71-64, Improving Its Record To 15-1

RELATED: Box Score

Michigan Wolverines basketball G Mike Smith
Michigan Wolverines basketball G Mike Smith scored 12 points tonight. (AP Images)

“I just try to take what the defense gives me every game,” he explained after the victory. “I’ve been playing aggressive these last few games and I think it’s important when everyone does that.

“It’s definitely more fun when shots fall. I try to exploit what the defense gives me. I’ve also been working hard on hitting shots. Once you miss a shot, Coach [Juwan Howard] always wants you to take the next open one.”

Michigan shot 46 percent for the game, but experienced a bit of an offensive lull late in the game. The club only scored 15 points from the under-12 media timeout on, but nevertheless continued playing great defense during the stretch.

The phenomenal defensive effort prevented Rutgers from ever realistically threatening to tie the game or take the lead.

“We take pride in our defense,” fifth-year senior guard Mike Smith exclaimed. “When the ball isn’t going in, who cares as long as we’re getting stops? If we keep getting stops, the game will end with us on top.

“Obviously we want to score, but sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. Our defense was a little rocky early in the year, but now everyone has bought in. We get a lot of blocks, which is something you don’t see in college.

“Everyone challenges shots and keeps getting better. If you want to win a championship, you have to play defense.”

A championship is exactly what the Maize and Blue have their eyes on, sitting atop the Big Ten standings with a 10-1 conference mark. Wagner was asked about U-M’s 15-1 overall record and how impressive it is, but he made it clear there is still a lot of work to be done.

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“That isn’t why we play,” he explained. “We don’t play to say we had a good first half of the season. We have a lot more work to do to achieve the goals we set before the year.”

“We’re just going out there and playing,” Smith added when asked if he and his teammates are aware of what the Big Ten standings look like. “Some people know, but that’s the least of our worries right now.

“We don’t want to think too far ahead or about how many games we have to win or anything like that. We just take it one game at a time and that’ll help us achieve what we want.”

The road to a Big Ten title will take Michigan to Columbus, Ohio, this Sunday, where the Wolverines and Buckeyes will square off in a massive conference battle. OSU is 12-4 in league play and one of U-M’s biggest challengers for the conference crown, with the college basketball world undoubtedly turning its eyes to the rivalry showdown this weekend.

“We’re always a confident group,” Smith confirmed when asked about the challenges of facing OSU on the road. “We have two days to pick up and learn some of Ohio State’s tendencies.

“I’m ready and excited for that challenge. It’s primetime and you live for these types of games. It’s going to be a championship caliber matchup. We work so hard to play in games like these, so it’ll be a lot of fun.”

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