The Michigan Wolverines (21-2, 8-2) are back in a first-place tie atop the Big Ten Conference after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes in overtime Tuesday night. In order to stay there, though, they’ll have to survive back-to-back road tests against the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State Spartans, beginning with Wisconsin (16-7, 7-3) Saturday afternoon.
Despite not being ranked inside the Top 25, Wisconsin is a dangerous bunch that plays sound defense, and Michigan can’t go into the Kohl Center without expecting a fight. Still, it’s easy to see the Wolverines have a distinct athletic advantage. The Badgers also lack perhaps the one thing that could give them an edge in this battle.
The ability to keep possessions alive with offensive rebounds.
Wisconsin is solid in corralling the opponent’s missed shots, but not so much their own. When the Badgers big men do haul in offensive rebounds, they often struggle to get the easy put-backs that give Michigan fits in close games. At 6’10″, 235 pounds, senior Jared Berggren is actually Wisconsin’s leading scorer (11.8 ppg), but he’s posted double-digit point totals in just two of his last seven outings. One of them went to double overtime.
The Badgers are hard to beat at home, but I don’t see them being able to keep up in this one, even against a Michigan team that doesn’t always play its best ball on the road.
Wisconsin is just 3-5 this season when allowing an opponent to score 60 points or more, and the Wolverines have been held to 60 points or less just once—a 56-53 road loss to Ohio State. While Mich is coming off a mentally and physically draining OT win over its most-hated rival, the Badgers actually went to two overtimes a day later in a win over Iowa.
If either team is to have tired legs come Saturday afternoon, it’ll likely be the Badgers. That won’t bode well for them in defending a team that stretches the floor well and possesses legitimate scoring threats all over the court. Fatigue probably won’t be much of a factor, but if it is: Advantage Maize and Blue.
A year ago, Michigan was able to out-rebound and outscore (59-41) a more talented Wisconsin team with relative ease. While the game was played at the Crisler Center, it was also before the Wolverines had the talented trio of freshmen in Glenn Robinson III, Nick Stauskas and Mitch McGary on board.
Head coach John Beilein has opted go with a smaller lineup of late while big man Jordan Morgan nurses an ankle injury. That nearly got Michigan into trouble against the Buckeyes and hurt them badly in the game prior against Indiana, but it should be extremely effective against Wisconsin.
The Badgers know this game is vital to their Big Ten Championship hopes, but they just aren’t athletic enough to defend what is arguably the nation’s best backcourt in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. while having to monitor GRIII, Stauskas and even McGary at all times. After seeing the Hoosiers fall to the Illinois Fighting Illini Thursday night, Michigan has its sights set on being No. 1 in the country once again.
When the Wolverines invade the Kohl Center Saturday afternoon, they’ll do so with a clear intent of making sure that this time, they stay there.