For the third weekend in the past five, Michigan has a chance to grab the No.1 spot in the national rankings with a win. Whether the Wolverines actually want the ranking and the curse that comes with it is debatable, since it seems to be the poison pill the past few weeks. But no one doubts whether the Maize and Blue want or need the win in Madison on Saturday afternoon.
With Indiana’s loss to Illinois on Thursday night and Michigan’s overtime win over Ohio State on Tuesday, the Wolverines are back in control of their own destiny in the Big Ten race. There’s still a long way to go with two games against rival Michigan State and a home bout with Indiana remaining, but a win tomorrow in one of the conference’s toughest venues would be big.
Nobody expected Wisconsin to be among the Big Ten’s title contenders, but with a win over Indiana and narrow losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, the Badgers have shown how feisty they can be. In essence, they’re a classic Bo Ryan team based around relentless defense and a ball control offense.
Saturday’s early showdown (tip is 11am local time) will be a clash of styles as the Big Ten’s top defense that prefers to play the game at a snail’s pace will try to slow down Michigan’s ultra-efficient offense that relies on a dynamic transition game.
While Arkansas and Virginia managed to beat Wisconsin in Madison early in the season, the Badgers have proven that doing so in conference play is a much tougher proposition. They beat Illinois and Minnesota in the Kohl Center and took Michigan State to the wire. But it was the win at Indiana three weeks ago that let everyone know they’re for real. Wisconsin’s defense held the Hoosiers 24 points below their season average thanks to a defense that limited Indiana to just 37 percent from the field.
A trio of Badgers score at roughly the same clip, led by 6’10” big man Jared Berggren’s 11.8 points per game. He scored 27 earlier in the season against Creighton, but had a string of five out of six games in which he was held to single-digits beginning with the IU game. Since that game, he has shot just 32 percent from the field. He has the ability to step out and hit the three, but over that span, he has made just 4-of-22. He’s also the second-team’s leading rebounder, which you would expect from a guy his size.
Guard Ben Brust averages 11 points and just under three assists per game and is coming off back-to-back solid performances. He scored 20 and 18 points against Illinois and Iowa, respectively, and shot 52 percent in the process. He’s a dangerous three-point shooter as well.
Senior forward Ryan Evans is also hot after consecutive 15-point, nine-rebound performances. He leads the team with 7.7 rebounds per game, but is not a threat from three, and if there’s a guy you need to foul down the stretch, he’s the guy with a 42.5 percent free throw clip.
Sam Dekker is a freshman who averages 8.7 points per game and is the team’s best three-point shooter at 42.1 percent. Traevon Jackson is the other guard, but has had his share of struggles this season. He turns the ball over nearly twice a game, which is uncharacteristic of the typical Bo Ryan guard, and is shooting just 28 percent from three-point range.
The other big man that plays a lot is Mike Bruesewitz. You might know him as the big white guy with the red afro. He averages 7.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in 27 minutes per game and is the hustle guy that plays a similar role as Mitch McGary. He’s shooting 45.1 percent overall and a smidgen over 30 percent from downtown, but he’s also the guy most likely to bank in a three at the buzzer (yes, I’m still bitter about what Josh Gasser did to us a couple years ago).
The main key for Michigan in this one is to not let Wisconsin dictate the tempo, which is exactly what the Ryan will want his squad to do. The Badgers are not very good offensively, so Michigan wil need to turn up the intensity on defense to force some turnovers and get out on the fast break where the Wolverines are deadly. If the entire offense revolves around Trey Burke taking step-back threes at the end of the shot-clock, Michigan likely won’t win. Push the tempo in the early going, get out to a good lead, and make Wisconsin win with its offense.
Michigan hasn’t won at the Kohl Center since 1999, and with a trip to East Lansing looming on Tuesday, will need to end that streak. Sam says Michigan will do just that with a 68-58 win to regain the No.1 ranking come Monday.