Wisconsin made the trip to Ann Arbor on Thursday to try and bounce back from a home loss to Northwestern. Michigan was still looking for its first marquee win of the season as the Wolverines look to creep to the positive side of the March Madness bubble.
The Badgers had to play their first game in ages without starting senior guard Bronson Koenig, and the absence of their third-leading scorer was a big one as the Wolverines got to the rim.
So, what do we take from Michigan’s takedown of the No. 11 Badgers?
What We learned:
1. Michigan is a tournament team.
The Wolverines had some blunders early that had bracketologists and surely the NCAA Tournament selection committee scratching their heads. While losses to South Carolina and Virginia Tech weren’t necessarily brutal, following those with conference losses to Iowa and Illinois had us second guessing Michigan.
Since then, though, Michigan has bolstered its resume — so much so that the Wolverines made a massive jump from 73 to 55 in less than a week in the RPI rankings, and KenPom has them at 28. Michigan bludgeoned Michigan State and Indiana at home and went to Bloomington to pick up another nice win against the Hoosiers.
The recent resume boost was capped off with Thursday’s win over Wisconsin that featured an early run, a second-half comeback and a solid closing couple of minutes to seal the deal.
They drain the three and they don’t turn it over, two things that should scare anybody that faces off against the Wolverines.
Michigan won’t be lucky enough to play tournament games at the Crisler Center, but they’re rolling at the right time and have the resume to prove it.
2. Derrick Walton Jr. doesn’t need to score for Michigan.
It obviously helps the Wolverines when Walton fills up the scoring column. He’s Michigan’s leading scorer and had 20 or more points in five straight games leading up to the Wisconsin matchup.
Walton finished with just 5 points on 1 of 8 shooting Thursday, his first and only field goal didn’t come until the one-minute mark in the first half, and it didn’t matter. His teammates picked up his slack scoring wise, and Walton took care of business elsewhere.
Zak Irvin came out of an abysmal shooting slump — 4 for 31 over the last four games — and dropped 18 on the Badgers on 50-percent shooting. Moritz Wagner scored 21, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 12.
Meanwhile, Walton still chipped in eight assists, five rebounds and two crucial steals that thwarted a Wisconsin run. After Wisconsin took an 8-point lead early in the second half, Walton turned two steals into 4 Michigan points. And with the game tied at 47, Walton drove and kicked out to Abdur-Rahkman, who buried a 3 plus the foul as Michigan took the lead for good.
3. Nigel Hayes needs to score for Wisconsin.
Remember when Nigel Hayes stole the hearts of basketball fans worldwide with his innocence during NCAA Tournament press conferences and his tenacity on the hardwood?
That was just two years ago, and it seems both the innocence and tenacity left with Bo Ryan.
Hayes, a senior who averaged 15.7 points per game a year ago, has dropped to just 13.6 points per game this year, despite leading the Badgers in minutes. His field-goal and 3-point percentages have both increased, but he, frankly, needs to score more when the Badgers’ offense stalls.
His first shot Thursday didn’t hit the rim, and his second shot was a missed layup. Ethan Happ kept Wisconsin in it with a monster first half, but Michigan adjusted its defense, and Happ’s final points came with 13 minutes still to play.
Michigan went on its run to take a 51-47 lead, and Hayes was gone. He finished with just 6 points on seven attempted field goals.
Team’s are starting to figure out the double team against Happ, and with Koenig out for the first time in 136 games, the rest of the Wisconsin team didn’t know what to do. Hayes, a senior with plenty of experience, needs to make more of a presence when the offense hits a wall.
There’s no word on Koenig’s injury or how much time he will miss — it doesn’t appear to be much — but Hayes still needs to come alive in crucial moments and become more of a consistent go-to threat. If something were to happen to Koenig down the stretch, wins and losses will ride heavily on Hayes’ broad shoulders.
The win was much more important for Michigan than the loss was for Wisconsin. At this point, Wisconsin is a lock as one of the top three teams in the Big Ten — the Badgers are now tied with Purdue and Maryland atop the standings.
Michigan, who was a “last 4 in” a day ago, got the marquee win it needed to solidify itself in the bracket. Three of the next for are on the road, including matchups with Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern.
Another win or two over one of those teams would make the Wolverines case even stronger, but as long as they don’t horribly botch any of the games, the win over Wisconsin should carry plenty of weight in two weeks.