Wisconsin has clearly separated itself as an upper echelon Big Ten team this season. The Badgers will face a Michigan team on Wednesday fighting for its tournament life among a four-pack of teams with seven conference wins.
Though UW beat Michigan at the Kohl Center in an early season Big Ten tilt, the game was closer than the final 66-50 score would indicate. The Wolverines, winners in six of their last eight games, have a young, improving nucleus featuring four freshmen and sophomore star Darius Morris.
B5Q: There are no seniors on Michigan's roster. Considering how competitive this young squad has been, how optimistic are you guys right now about the direction of the program under John Beilein? Are fans tempering their enthusiasm in light of how last year's team dealt with raised expectations?
UMH: It's tough not to be optimistic about this team right now. Michigan entered the season with the youngest major-conference team in the country and was expected by many to finish 10th or 11th in the league. The fact that Michigan is even a part of the bubble conversation at this point is remarkable. Last year's disappointment didn't necessarily wear off but there isn't reason to believe that it would reoccur. Many will point to Beilein's recruiting as a negative but it is trending upward even if it isn't dominant rankings-wise. Overall, I would say Michigan fans are cautiously optimistic to see what this team can do going forward, but many continue to question how high the ceiling is.
B5Q: The Wolverines took Kansas to overtime earlier in the year, but had a front-loaded Big Ten conference schedule that put them in an early hole. After being demoralized at Indiana in mid-January, what changes have allowed this team to make a legit run at an NCAA tournament berth? Has the light simply flipped on?
UMH: Michigan really hit rock bottom after a home loss to Minnesota. The Wolverines looked lifeless on their home floor and the loss capped a 1-7 streak. Michigan was 11-9 (1-6 B10) and fans were just barely hopeful that they could make the NIT. Next up was a road trip to Michigan State, where the Wolverines hadn't won since 1997. Michigan stole a win in East Lansing and that really seemed to change everything. The schedule has gotten a bit easier from that game on but it's also clear that Michigan is playing significantly better basketball.
B5Q: Darius Morris got a lot of pub early on, but Tim Hardaway Jr. is looking like the real deal. He abused Rob Wilson in his first meeting with Wisconsin, but was shut out in the second half after scoring 10 first-half points. Is Hardaway the go-to scorer for Michigan these days?
UMH: Morris has been phenomenal and really makes Michigan's entire offense work. However, Tim Hardaway Jr. has really started to put it all together. Hardaway is averaging 19 points per game over the last seven and is scoring extremely efficiently as well. In that seven-game stretch, he has an effective field goal percentage of 69% thanks to 51% three point shooting. Shot selection was a huge problem for him early in the year but now he really seems to understand when to attack, when to pull up, and when to pass the ball. Opponents have negated him at times, but he's reached the point where you have to focus a significant part of your defense in his direction.
B5Q: I was honestly surprised to see that Michigan is only faster than two Big Ten teams in terms of tempo (Penn State and Wisconsin). Is it in Michigan's best interests to try to push tempo or slow it down? Tell us how you think Michigan can beat the Badgers this time around.
UMH: Michigan has really effective stretches where playing in transition really gets them out of an offensive funk, but there's no denying that Michigan wants to slow the game down. In a number of ways, Michigan is very similar to Wisconsin in terms of what they want to do on offense. Minimize the number of possessions, don't turn the ball over, and get a good shot off each time down the floor. There's still a ways to go in terms of improvement, but Michigan would prefer to play a slower game.
B5Q: I know Zack Novak, at 6'4", has been asked to play forward a lot, but I still view him as one of three interchangeable gunners along with Stu Douglass and Matt Vogrich. Am I oversimplifying or does Beilein just hope for any two of those guys catch fire from game to game?
UMH: Douglass and Novak more than the others. Those are two players that are both going to get a fair share of shots in just about every game with a majority coming from three-point range. They have shot the ball fairly well this year, both between 37 and 38% with over 120 attempts, but seem to rarely both be hot during the same game. Douglass plays the off guard and also a bit at the backup point spot during the few times that Darius is on the bench while Novak plays most of his minutes at the four and is an above average defensive rebounder for a 6-foot-4 guy. Vogrich plays much fewer minutes and mostly backs up Hardaway off the bench. Vogrich can hit open shots but is more of a liability in other ways, mainly defense, than Stu and Zack.
B5Q: Can a 9-9 Big Ten record get Michigan into the tournament or do they need to win out? Do you think the Wolverines get in this year?
UMH: Ah, bracketology. I think 9-9 can get Michigan in but I'd be a lot more comfortable if one of those nine included this one. Michigan needs a higher profile win and Wisconsin is the final remaining team that fits the bill. Beat the Badgers and then it's down to winning at Minnesota or sweeping Michigan State with a home win. Unfortunately, I just can't see Michigan winning this game. Wisconsin has handled Michigan with relative ease at Crisler Arena under John Beilein and I'm just not sure this team can pull it out.