Remarkable as it might seem, Wisconsin (16-7, 7-3 Big Ten) and No. 3 Michigan (21-2, 8-2) are only separated by one game in the Big Ten standings just past the halfway point in conference play. You think UW's low-scoring ways have anything to do with this game being put on the 11 a.m. docket for Saturday morning?
Regardless, the Wolverines are a terror on offense thanks to the return of sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who has developed into a leading candidate for National Player of the Year honors. Burke averages 18 points per game while knocking on the door of a 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Three other players score in double figures, including two freshmen wings.
B5Q: Michigan comes to Madison with the most efficient offense in the country, with a deadly perimeter attack led by Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. In what ways is Burke even better than last season?
Maize n Brew: I think the main thing with Burke this year is experience. He was phenomenal last year doing largely the same kinds of things, but with an added year of development he is just a little better and more prepared to handle defenses. Take the Ohio State game last week for example: Burke has spent his last four games against OSU getting harassed into turnovers and letting Aaron Craft dictate the flow of the game. Last game, however, Burke did a better job not allowing Craft to force him into bad places, and Burke was able to generate offense without giving the ball up (16 points on 12 shots, eight assists, and just two turnovers). Burke is still the same cold-blooded scorer and able facilitator, he is just a bit more savvy and polished.
B5Q: Ken Pomeroy has Wisconsin down as the toughest game left on Michigan's schedule. What concerns you the most about this matchup?
MnB: Wisconsin being Wisconsin. The reason the Badgers are so equal parts terrifying and infuriating to the rest of the Big Ten is that games against Wisconsin are unlike any other games on the schedule. Wisconsin's pace, defensive focus, and desire to constantly ugly up the game is very similar to the problems posed in football by a triple option team. You are facing a team that is well versed in its own system, while you only see that system maybe once or twice a year. That has a tendency to be a bit of an equalizer. Between this game and a trip to East Lansing on Tuesday, Michigan might be facing its two toughest remaining tests of the regular season.
B5Q: In the Wolverines' two losses so far, they've lost a low-scoring grinder (56-53 at Ohio State) as well as a run-'n-gun special (81-73 at Indiana). Playing Wisconsin is obviously more similar to playing OSU, who played two close games with Michigan. How would Michigan handle another low-possession, close game -- just hand the ball to Burke and let him win it?
MnB: I think the difference between Ohio State and Wisconsin is that I'm not sure if the Badgers can find a way to play perimeter defense as tough as OSU and force Michigan to play from the outside. Ohio State had so much success against Michigan because the Buckeyes essentially locked down everything inside the three point line. Michigan was forced to win with long jumpers (not always a good proposition as the 1-1 record this year against OSU indicates). I don't know if Wisconsin has the on-the-ball defender to harass Burke to a Craft-ian level (I doubt it), or the length and athleticism to close kickout passing lanes and keep Michigan's wings from getting into the paint on drives. Although, while I don't think Wisconsin's defense is a physically talented as Ohio State's, it may well not matter at all. Sample size is everything, and if Wisconsin can keep this game around 60 possessions and catch Michigan on anything but a good shooting day, the Badgers will have a really good chance to win this. Michigan will have to keep its offense producing efficiently to have a good chance in this one.
MnB: Michigan doesn't have a traditional offensive threat in the post, but I don't think that matters. The only player that has even shown an interest in playing with his back to the basket is Jon Horford, and he is the least used of the three centers in the rotation. Morgan is going to score as the roll man on pick-and-rolls, as well as get a couple good looks at putbacks. McGary is actually the better all-around scorer. He has shown an ability to shoot from 15 feet out, as well as put the ball on the floor at the high post and take it to the basket against one on one defense. Neither guy will eat up possessions or be a first option to score in any offensive set, but the points, rebounds, and defense that the combination of all three centers is able to provide is enough for this team in most cases, and all three fit well within the rest of the offense.
B5Q: Talk about the development of Nik Stauskas. Where did he come from? He's hitting nearly half of his 3-pointers (58-of-119), but I've seen him put it on the deck when given the chance. Did anyone have an inkling in the off-season that this type of debut season was coming from him?
MnB: Stauskas was everyone's best kept secret over the summer. Most hardcore Michigan fans had known about him from scouting reports and a series of ridiculous YouTube videos where he would shoot 100 threes and hit something like 80 percent of them. A lot of that scouting also turned up the "Not just a shooter" meme before it really took off as the announcer crutch it is today.
That being said, I don't think anyone figured Stuaskas would have this large an effect on the offense this soon -- and I think anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Robinson III and McGary were the big names in the class, and both are largely playing at or around the level that was expected. The hope for Stuaskas was that he would come in, provide solid three point shooting, and not be a huge defensive liability. Basically "just a shooter," at least for the first year. He has easily surpassed that, quickly developing into the third scoring option on the team and the future of the offense.
B5Q: Wisconsin really tightened up its rotation in the double-overtime win over Iowa, but uses about eight players regularly. Michigan's rotation appears even smaller. Where's the depth? Besides the top six Wolverines, in what situations will we see another player or two on Saturday?
MnB: Michigan has very little depth; a surprise since there are a few players on the bench that have some game experience from past seasons. Most of the faces off the bench come in the form of either A) center rotation or B) freshman guards. Morgan and McGary split minutes pretty evenly these days when Morgan is healthy, and Horford gets a few minutes a game when he is 100 percent. Then, when Michigan needs help in the backcourt it goes with either Spike Albrecht to spell Burke for 5-ish minutes a game, and Caris LeVert to come in at the two or three. Albrecht is a steady hand at the point who can usually pick up an assist or basket in his time on the floor without being a liability at the point. LeVert is a pure scorer that was almost a certain redshirt before the season, but played his way out of that and into the rotation. While Michigan is heavily dependent on its starters for minutes, both Albrecht and LeVert have been in the game at key moments, so if they are forced into action it isn't necessarily a harbinger of doom.
B5Q: Looking forward, how many wins will it take to win the Big Ten -- and do you think Michigan will be the team to win it? Assuming the Wolverines snag a 1 or 2 seed, is anything less than a Final Four run a disappointment this season?
MnB: I think any team that gets to 15 conference wins is a sure thing for an outright title at this point. Otherwise, I think we have two or three teams that end up at 14 wins and the title gets split between them. I could even be convinced that 13 wins will be good enough for a share (if it gets to that, something like four teams are going to be in the running for a share of the title). The Big Ten is just that deep and talented. I think Michigan has as good a chance as anyone, but that will depend a lot of the next two games. If Michigan can win on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan State over the next two games then the Wolverines have to be the prohibitive favorite to win the regular season conference title. The only away games left after that are Purdue and Penn State, and having the second game against IU, MSU, and Illinois at home will be a huge help down the stretch as things get tight. I like Michigan's chances as much or better than anyone else in the league at this point, but as Thursday's IU-Ill game showed, the picture can change quickly. I'm not ready to talk about the tournament yet. I want to enjoy the regular season first and deal with tournament expectations when that time comes. It's been too long since Michigan basketball has been at this level -- I want to savor every second of it.
B5Q: In your mind, is the mega-success of this year's team something that is sustainable under John Beilein? Or did Michigan really catch lightning in a bottle with Burke blossoming at the same time that Beilein pulled maybe his greatest recruiting class (McGary, Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Spike Albrecht, primarily) ever?
MnB: I think the pieces are in place for Michigan to be competitive for the foreseeable future. Beilein has been doing a good job of identifying and developing talent for a few years now. It isn't just that Michigan hit the lottery with Burke, it is that Beilein has been doing a wonderful job of identifying elite talent earlier in the recruiting process. Before Burke it was Darius Morris. This year it was GRIII, McGary, and Stuaskas that Michigan got a hold of early in the process. Next year Michigan will have a couple really talented kids coming in as well. Recruiting shows no signs of slowing down. On top of that, Michigan just poured a substantial amount of money into the basketball facilities. There is a brand new practice facility and a totally renovated Crisler Center. These are the kinds of large scale changes that are going to help Michigan stay at a top-25 level in basketball.
Michigan won't be a perennial top-5 team under Beilein, but the Wolverines should be able to continue to challenge for Big Ten titles, win 20+ games a year, and every couple years put together a team capable at making a deep run in the tourney. After the last fifteen years of college basketball purgatory that Michigan has existed in, I'll take that.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||C||Jon Horford, So.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Glenn Robinson III, Fr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F / G||Nick Stauskas, Fr.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Tim Hardaway, Jr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Trey Burke, So.|
KenPom win probability: 44% (62-60 L) 59 possessions
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