With one week left in the regular season, there are countless games this season that have a direct impact on whether a team will be playing for the NCAA Tournament. While there might not be a little ranking number next to either team, it could be argued the most intriguing matchup is taking place in Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers have been surging as of late and are playing for seeding, while Michigan is one win away from securing an NCAA Tournament bid after missing out last year.
Starting with Wisconsin, every week it gets harder to put into perspective how monumental the Badgers' turnaround is. After such a dismal start, Wisconsin has managed to compile some of the best individual wins in the entire country, including a monumental road win at top-10 team Iowa on Wednesday. While some teams have one or two stars that completely take over games, the Badgers have been extremely methodical in their victories.
Wednesday's victory is a perfect example of this, as Khalil Iverson stole the show with highlight plays, Zak Showalter continued his work as a defensive pest, Bronson Koenig knocked down four threes and everyone else chipped in as the Badgers out-toughed Iowa to a 67-59 win in Iowa City. The Badgers' three-headed frontcourt monster, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ, only combined for 22 points, showing the Badgers can win in a variety of ways.
While Wisconsin pulled off a monumental upset in Iowa City, Michigan welcomed early season darlings Northwestern to the Crisler Center. The Wildcats have had an extremely disappointing Big Ten season after starting off 13-1, stumbling to 17-10 and 5-9 in the Big Ten. But that wasn't evident at the start, as Northwestern jumped out to a 10-0 lead five minutes in. Michigan was never comfortable in the first half, but a Duncan Robinson 3-pointer just before the buzzer closed the lead to 29-28 Northwestern.
The second half was a back-and-forth grind, but ultimately timely shooting from Aubrey Dawkins and clutch free throws by Derrick Walton Jr. brought the Wolverines to the finish line 72-63. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was a force driving to the basket all game, finishing with 19 points. Walton ended with 16 including eight from the line, and Dawkins' 11 off the bench was the third Wolverine in double figures. Michigan got solid play inside from the split of Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal, with the two centers finishing with 13 points and six rebounds.
On Sunday, the game could ultimately come down to the first four or five minutes. Michigan continues to be horrific from the tip, while the Badgers thrive at jumping out to leads early or keeping the game close. If Michigan gets forced into bad turnovers or can't knock down their shots, it could be a long afternoon.
As for matchups, the Badgers are extremely unique in that their three frontcourt players can all guard at least two positions, with Hayes the most versatile in his ability to guard both wings and forwards. Koenig and Showalter will be matched up with Walton and Abdur-Rahkman to start, but the Badgers backcourt depth with Jordan Hill could be pivotal in this game.
Overall, Wisconsin is the more talented team on paper. The emergence of Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas has turned the Wisconsin team from a solid team that relies heavily on its starters to one that can go legitimately nine deep.
For Michigan, the key is going to be to get Duncan Robinson back on track. The redshirt sophomore has been noticeably absent the last few weeks, and Michigan needs to get him some shots. If they can do that, and can continue to receive great production from Abdur-Rahkman, Walton and Dawkins, they have a shot to win this game. If not, expect the Badgers to roll in the Kohl Center.