On Saturday night, Michigan and Wisconsin faced off in a nationally spotlighted game in Ann Arbor. ESPN's College Gameday even made the trip for the game. The Wolverines would be major underdogs, but would have the home crowd on their side to try and pull an upset off against #6 Wisconsin.
During the game, Wisconsin took control early, but Michigan came roaring back toward the middle of the 1st Half and were able to take a slim lead at one point in the 1st Half. At the end of the 1st Half and early on in the 2nd Half, it looked like the Badgers may be running away with it, but Michigan came storming back and forced overtime with some big plays from sophomore Derrick Walton, Jr. In overtime, Wisconsin was too much and closed the game with some solid free throw shooting. The final score was Wisconsin 69-64.
So what did we learn?
What We Learned
Badgers Can Win On The Road
Coming into this season and the conference season, most expected this to be one of the deepest and most talented teams that Wisconsin fans have seen in a very long time. During non-conference play, there was little doubt that Wisconsin was one of the top teams in the country. However, we have seen several times in recent years that the "best team" does not always win the Big Ten regular season title. Much of the conference title race is about being consistent, winning the games you are supposed to win, and being able to win on the road. Coming into this game, Wisconsin's only Big Ten road win was against Northwestern. In non-conference, they did face decent California and Marquette teams on the road, but this very well could have been Wisconsin's toughest road game of the season so far. They answered the bell with a gutsy win and showed that they should be able to survive the grind of conference play.
Wisconsin Has Other Players That Can Step Up Besides Kaminsky
Although Frank Kaminsky finished the night with 22 points and 9 rebounds, he was relatively quiet early in the game and it took big plays from his teammates to get the Badgers in position to win the game. Perhaps most notably was early in the 2nd Half when Michigan began its run to get back into the game. Right when it looked like Michigan might take control, Sam Dekker and Bronson Koenig came up with some big buckets to slow the tide and keep Wisconsin on top. By the end of the night Dekker and Koenig not only finished with double-digits, but Nigel Hayes also had a big night with 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. A team effort carried Wisconsin to their win over Michigan and kept Wisconsin at the top of the conference standings.
Michigan Isn't Done Yet
One of the major storylines around the Big Ten over the last few weeks has been the injury of Michigan's Caris LeVert and its devestating impact on the Wolverines. While this is certainly true - LeVert led Michigan in every major statistical category this season - it also may have been a bit premature. Michigan certainly had a roaring crowd for its home game against Wisconsin, but the fact that they were able to hold their own against one of the elite teams in the country without their best player tells a lot about Michigan's team and the coaching of John Beilein. Perhaps the biggest thing that helped Michigan stay in this one was not the play of Michigan's star players, but its role players. Early in the 1st Half, Michigan got down 9-3, but key plays upfront from players like Max Bielfeldt, Aubrey Dawkins, and Mark Donnal kept the Wolverines in the game and gave them a shot in the 2nd Half to make it a game. If Michigan's role players can continue to step up, it would mean a ton for a team playing without its best player.
Derrick Walton May Finally Be Turning The Corner
For much of this season, Michigan guard Derrick Walton, Jr. has been limited due to injury. As a result, his early season showings have been mixed. He had a lot of games all over the place and particularly, his play in December was very underwhelming with 5 of his 7 games with offensive ratings below 90. However, he made the big plays in the 2nd Half for Michigan and finally showed the explosion getting to the hoop that Wolverine fans had been hoping to see for the whole season. Arguably, his biggest shot of the night was when he drilled one from long range to send the game to overtime. Along with this, his passing was also very solid over the course of the game and though he did not rack up a lot of assists, he was finding teammates in good positions both down low and at the perimeter. In a time when few are pointing to reasons to hope for Michigan, Walton remains a bright spot and could really start to carry this team with Caris LeVert sidelined.
This was probably not a monumental win for Wisconsin, but it was still solid and big for maintaining the lead in the conference race with Indiana and Maryland. For Michigan, this will be a frustrating loss as the team will likely think about "what could have been," but there are still positives and the team appears to be progressing. Finally, it was a great game for fans and provided an exciting showcase for Big Ten basketball.