The road doesn't get any smoother for the Wisconsin men's basketball team this weekend, as it tries to snap a two-game losing streak against a very talented Michigan squad on the road in Ann Arbor. Both teams are coming off close losses to conference front runners, but the Wolverines (12-3, 2-1 Big Ten) are in a better position right now than the Badgers (12-4, 1-2). Michigan has loaded up on young talent in recent years, including all-league swingman Tim Hardaway Jr. and prized rookie point guard Trey Burke.
We welcome back Dylan Burkhardt for some required pre-game reading in front of Sunday's contest. Dylan has done an amazing job building Michigan basketball mecca UMHoops and he swapped insights with me on such topics as similarities between the two programs and which Wolverine would make the best Badger.
B5Q: Michigan has no bad losses on its resume, losing to tournament-caliber Duke, Virginia and Indiana teams on the road or at a neutral site. Where would a home win over Wisconsin rank in importance toward validating the team's legitimacy?
DB: In the big picture, there are plenty of opportunities left for Michigan to pick up a couple of marquee wins. In the here and now, it would be a huge step in the right direction. Michigan beat Memphis, a preseason top 10 team that quite a few people have beaten, and took care of business against teams like UCLA, Iowa State, etc. but Michigan's season just seems to lack that marquee win to elevate things to the next level. Beating Wisconsin, even a struggling Wisconsin team, would certainly provide this team with some major confidence going forward.
Students are back in town, the game is sold out and televised nationally on CBS, several prominent alumni will be in town for the dedication of Michigan's new practice facility and Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team that John Beilein hasn't beaten since arriving in Ann Arbor. It's safe to say that this would be a nice win.
B5Q: Explain to us what expectations were like in Ann Arbor coming into this season. Have you seen anything from the Wolverines that has really surprised you so far?
DB: Michigan returned its entire roster from last season sans Darius Morris, who entered the NBA Draft after his sophomore year. Given Michigan's surprising run last season and valiant tournament effort against Duke in the round of 32, expectations were naturally high. Fans wanted to see Michigan build upon that success. Darius Morris's decision put a wrinkle in those expectations but that leads directly toward this year's biggest surprise: Trey Burke.
Burke has stepped into the point guard role as a true freshman and exceeded almost everyone's expectations. He's averaging 14 points, five assists and three rebounds per game and is leading a relatively experienced Michigan team in minutes played. He’s a top 20 finalist for the Cousy Award and a candidate for Big Ten freshman of the year. Michigan fans are thankful to see Burke on the floor because it's a bit horrifying to picture this team without him.
B5Q: Much to my chagrin, there are many similarities between Wisconsin and Michigan basketball these days, at least in terms of statistical profile. For instance, both teams shoot the 3-pointer well, take care of the ball and own the defensive glass. Neither side will turn the opponent over much, nor will UM or UW hit the offensive boards very hard either. Would you say Michigan has grown more like Wisconsin in recent years, or vice versa?
DB: This is really a fascinating question. You would be hard pressed to find a casual basketball fan that would consider Bo Ryan and John Beilein to have similar ideals and offensive systems. However, the numbers really don't lie. The turnovers, the threes, the tempo and rebounding tendencies all compare very favorably.
Obviously the principles of offense are different. Ryan's swing offense is much more compact than Beilein's more spread style of offense but the emphases are obviously similar.
I think the two greatest shifts or changes in each program have been Wisconsin falling in love with the 3-point shot and Michigan improving on the defensive glass. Recent Wisconsin teams have shot a ton of threes and that's not something you saw from Ryan's previous teams. Likewise, Michigan has made great progress on the defensive glass in recent seasons.
B5Q: Indiana's effective FG% was off the charts on Thursday. Michigan has struggled to keep opponents from doing damage from 3-point land this season so how do you stop a Wisconsin team that loves to gun it from deep? The Badgers are due for a hot shooting performance any minute ...
DB: Three-point shots will be critical for both teams because they attempt so many but Michigan's 3-point defense is a real concern. Big Ten opponents are shooting 42.2% from 3-point range against through three games and Wisconsin should be able to get some open looks. This could be the most important stat to watch during Sunday's game.
B5Q: Conversely, I really fear UW's defensive matchups in the backcourt. Containing Tim Hardaway Jr. was an adventure last year and I fear freshman point Trey Burke is too quick for any of our guards. Talk about those two players and which team you see having the advantage at guard.
DB: Tim Hardaway Jr. finished last season on a ridiculous 3-point shooting stretch. Now he's in a slump that's just about as bad as that stretch was good. Hardaway has made just 5 of his last 33 three-point attempts and is losing some of his confidence with the weapon that made him deadly last season. However, he has done a great job diversifying his game and attacking the basket. He's making 58% of his two point shots this year compared to 48% last year and is attempting 55% of his field goals inside the arc compared to 45% last season. If Hardaway is hitting threes, he's almost impossible to guard, but if he's not you can slow him down by playing physical defense and denying him the ball as best you can.
Trey Burke has also been tremendous. He's jet quick, especially effective pushing the ball in transition, and has shown a good jumpshot from behind the arc and also in the mid-range. He had a career-high 27 points against Minnesota but struggled a bit at Indiana while still tallying 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Taylor is significantly stronger than Burke but I think Burke has the quickness advantage; it will be interesting to see which attribute wins out.
B5Q: Sweet-shooting sophomore big man Evan Smotrycz (10.6 ppg, 55% on 3s) really impressed me the few times I've watched Michigan this year. Which begs the question: which Wolverine would have fit the best in Wisconsin's system, Smotrycz or scrappy utility man Zack Novak?
DB: John Beilein calls Smotrycz a "high risk, high reward player" and that's a great way to put it. When things are going well for Smotrycz, he's a game changer. He stretches the floor with his 3-point shooting and can even put the ball on the floor a little bit and do some great things. He's improved his rebounding numbers significantly as a sophomore and is slowly but surely learning how to play better defense without fouling. However, he still has the tendency to pick up cheap fouls and will try to force the issue, doing a bit too much offensively at times. He's not as big and strong as a traditional Wisconsin big man but Bo Ryan has done a great job with bigs that can shoot the three lately.
However, I'm not sure there's a coach in the Big Ten that wouldn't want Zack Novak on his team. Novak isn't a perfect fit for any position but he's just a basketball player. He makes plays and he's an extraordinary leader. He'll give you a little bit of everything - made threes, charges, hustle plays, you name it.
B5Q: Ken Pomeroy predicts a 59-52 Badger road win with a fair level of certainty. I know you typically enjoy Pomeroy's work. We've seen how Michigan State fans feel about Pomeroy's rankings (they hate them) -- what say you, level-headed, progressive UM hoops junkie? Are they accurate?
DB: Ken Pomeroy's website is a tremendous resource but I don't think his rankings are unflappable at this point in the season. There's a lot of basketball left to be played and it's possible to be over or undervalued based on extraordinarily great or thoroughly average performance against some of the dregs of college basketball. I think Wisconsin is certainly a bit overvalued but I'm not sure by how much. If Michigan is the team that it wants to be, the Wolverines will win this game on their home floor.
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