We knew the Big Ten would be good this year. But Wisconsin's past two losses have demonstrated how deep this conference is, and how every conference game will be a huge test. Michigan has handled each conference test with aplomb, as they move to 5-0 in the Big Ten with their 77-70 victory over the #3 ranked Wisconsin Badgers. This drops the Badgers' record to 16-2, including a 3-2 in-conference record.
Michigan started this game blazing hot. They made 11 of their first 14 shots from the field, including a 4-4 performance from behind the arc. This came from a lights-out performance by both Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. Their jumpers were falling an at absurd rate, and they found lots of open space to operate. It wasn't the most inspiring defensive performance from the Badgers, especially on the pick-and-rolls. However, Wisconsin was never blatantly out of position to defend. Michigan just could not miss. There was a sequence where Glenn Robinson III made two mid-range jumpers in a row off a screen from around the exact same spot. Sam Dekker's defense wasn't poor, Robinson III just knocked them down.
That's not to say that Wisconsin got blown out. As Robinson III went on his run, Dekker responded to each of his buckets with layups of his own. But the star of the first half was Josh Gasser. He consistently knocked down big threes that prevented the Wolverines from running away with this game. Four consecutive Wisconsin turnovers with 4 minutes left in the half helped Michigan turn their 3-point lead into a 9-point lead, but Wisconsin crawled back with jumpers from Gasser and Ben Brust. The Wolverines only held a 5-point halftime lead, but held the momentum. They shot 60% from the field, compared to Wisconsin's 45%.
Michigan opened the second half equally hot, again with help from Stauskas and LeVert. Their performance impressed me, especially on a day where Derrick Walton Jr. struggled. Because of Wisconsin's iffy defense, they found open looks and buried them. The lead stretched to 15 with 10 minutes left, but the Badgers comeback began soon after. There was a lid on the rim for a 4 minute stretch for Michigan, and in that window, Wisconsin brought the game to within 3. They did so on the backs of their jump-shooting, but with Nigel Hayes on the floor for Brust.
The freshman continued to play out of his mind. His post moves were on point, his mid-range jumper fell, and his passing is light-years ahead of most freshmen big men. In one instance, Hayes found himself matched up with Stauskas with 4 minutes left. He made sure to get the ball in the post, and saw Horford drop down from the top of the key to help in the paint. Immediately, he kicked it out to an open Kaminsky at the top, who buried a three and sent the Kohl Center into bedlam.
With a 68-67 Michigan lead, Stauskas hit the biggest shot of the night: a step-back three in the face of Nigel Hayes. That's not a Badger-friendly matchup, but Gasser had just picked up his fourth foul, and forced Bo to throw Hayes out there. Stauskas put a sweet crossover on the slower Hayes, and dropped a huge three. Stauskas scored Michigan's last 11 points, including 6 clinching foul shots for a total of 23. With that, Michigan extended their lead to a final score of 77-70.
For Wisconsin, this loss must be kept in perspective. Michigan is a very good team, and came out firing. It's hard to place blame on a sole Wisconsin player for this loss. Traevon Jackson struggled shooting, but I didn't have a problem with his game. He shot an ugly 3-11, but his 5 assists came on either layups or three-pointers. He was threading the needle on tough passes, and found open shooters. His dribbling looked erratic, but he only turned the ball over twice. It's easy to push blame on Jackson for this loss, but the problems for Wisconsin were more global.
Their defense does not look sharp. There's no easy answer to their defensive struggles either. Excluding Michigan's 4 minute stretch without a field goal, the Badgers struggled to force back-to-back stops. The transition defense still looked rusty, and that needs to improve. When they play against guards who create and make shots, their pick-and-roll defense falls short. Sadly for Wisconsin, they face a very tough matchup: Minnesota on the road. Not only is that a rivalry game, but that's a tough defensive matchup. Andre and Austin Hollins could go to town on the Badgers' poor defense.
For Michigan, this was arguably their best performance of the year. Before the game, I was concerned with how the combination of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan would perform. But they combined for 12 points on 6-6 shooting and 15 rebounds. That type of efficiency down low is what Michigan lacks without Mitch McGary, and it's good to see that two-headed monster produce. Obviously, Stauskas had a great game, but LeVert's performance should inspire confidence for Wolverine fans for the rest of conference play. He played very well in the non-conference schedule, but didn't have a signature in-conference performance. His 20 points and 7 rebounds made this victory one of his finest games. If LeVert becomes a constant source of production, Michigan will hang tough each night in the Big Ten.