We have all been taught that it's more important to get up after you fall rather than never fall at all. Getting back up is the challenge now facing the once-defeated Wisconsin Badgers (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) after their worst performance of the season.
Awaiting UW is last year's national runner-up, Michigan. The Wolverines (12-4, 4-0) could be considered an overlooked commodity in the Big Ten this year. Yet they sit a half game back of Michigan State for the conference lead and one full game ahead of the Badgers, making this an extremely important game for both teams.
Michigan has a different look from last year after losing a pair of star guards to the NBA and its elite big man, Mitch McGary, to season-ending back surgery. Its resume thus far scores well on the "good losses" scale, coming up short against the likes of Arizona, Duke and Iowa State with a baffling loss to Charlotte in between.
I hunted down Zach Travis from Maize n Brew for a few answers about how Michigan is rounding into form and why the "Big Pup" isn't the Wolverines' alpha dog.
B5Q: Michigan has a six-game winning streak going after barely losing to the top team in the country inside Crisler Arena. Are the Wolverines are playing better with the Jordan Morgan-Jon Horford tandem than they did with Mitch McGary in the lineup?
Maize N Brew (Zach): Yes, but it doesn't have as much to do with Morgan/Horford as it does the rest of the lineup finally starting to click into place. When Michigan struggled early in the season it was because the offense would often grind to a halt in the half court. Michigan was so reliant a year ago on Trey Burke to open up shots for the rest of the team that without his presence, there were a lot of offensive possessions that were wasted as Michigan struggled to get into the lane and force the defense to react, thereby opening up passes for clean shots. There was a lot of hand wringing early in the season over Glenn Robinson III's lack of development into a high usage player. Last year he thrived as the fourth or fifth offensive option, pouring in easy and efficient points on open corner threes, dump off passes to the low block, and transition baskets. In the beginning of the year as he was suddenly given more of the offensive load to shoulder he didn't deal with it well. Nik Stauskas did play well early, but as we saw in the Duke game, when teams realized he was the only one playing well, they could deny him the ball and Michigan's offense would evaporate. Early in the season most of Michigan's best offense was getting the ball up the court for transition opportunities — something that McGary excelled at either with outlet passes or pushing the ball himself.
Fortunately, Michigan had dealt with the loss of McGary well enough because the rest of the team is beginning to play better in the half-court. Robinson has started to find a way to play a more active role in the offense, Nik Stauskas has taken on a major role as facilitator off the pick and role, and Caris LeVert has rounded into somewhat steady form after an up and down first two months of the season. With those players all asserting themselves more, it has taken the pressure off the supporting cast and opened up easier shot opportunities. All of the sudden, Michigan has a pretty nice half-court offense on which to rely, and that has really helped paper over the loss of McGary (for now...).
B5Q: The advanced statistical profiles for Wisconsin and Michigan are strikingly similar and I think you'll agree that both are classic examples of perimeter-oriented teams. I'm wondering if the recent success of John Beilein in Ann Arbor has opened up any new appreciation among UM fans for the way Wisconsin plays offensively.
MnB: "Appreciate" and "Wisconsin" aren't really going to be two words you find in the same sentence when you talk to Big Ten fans (hate hate hate hate hate). I do admit that Wisconsin's offense can be brutally effective in the half court, and even though the Badgers want to wring every last second out of the shot clock, it works and that's the most important thing. Michigan's offense, like I mentioned before, is good in the half court, but really shines in transition. With the kind of athleticism and length Michigan has, getting the ball up the court fast opens up a lot of mismatches and easy shots, and considering how little Michigan turns the ball over, even at a faster pace, this allows the Wolverines to be able to quickly pile up points and build the kind of two- and three-minute runs that change the tenor of a game. I respect the efficiency of Wisconsin's perimeter based offense, but I've been indoctrinated for too long in the lore of Big Ten basketball to say anything nicer about the Badgers' style of play than that (hate hate hate hate hate).
B5Q: Filling Trey Burke's shoes would be a tough task for anyone, let alone a true freshman. How has Derrick Walton looked as Michigan's lead guard so far? In what ways is he coming into his own after getting a little bit of experience?
MnB: Walton has been up and down so far this year, which is expected for a true freshman point guard, even one that was as highly rated a recruit as Walton coming in. However, I think he suffered from A) not being Trey Burke and B) the offense really needing Burke quite a few times early in the season, and that the perception of him by most of the fan base was negatively influenced by those two things. There was even a point where most of us were openly wondering if sophomore Spike Albrecht was a better option to start than Walton, and that was fully acknowledging Spike's defensive deficiencies.
As the season has progressed, Walton has grown and settled into his role in the offense. A big part of this has been the improvement I've cited above in the rest of Michigan's perimeter players, as it has taken the pressure off Walton to be the main distributor in the offense. Now Michigan is allowing him to play to his strengths. He can push the ball in transition where he is both fast and aggressive, he can play off the ball in the half-court and be the beneficiary of kick out passes for open jumpers, and he can focus on defense where his size and athleticism can excel (although he is still prone to mistakes at that end). John Beilein never wanted to ask Walton to recreate Trey Burke's role on the team, but until Stauskas/GRIII/LeVert stepped up and took on some of those responsibilities, it was Walton who looked the most lost. Now that the whole team is playing better, Walton's role is more limited and defined, and that has helped his game immensely.
B5Q: Another player I'm curious about is sophomore wing Caris LeVert. I had never heard of this skinny kid before he filled in for Tim Hardaway Jr. one game last year and for all I know, he could be a walk-on. But he's hit for 15 or more points seven times already this season and seems to be someone that Michigan leans on despite not being one of the heralded recruits. What's his story?
MnB: LeVert is an interesting case. He was the last pickup in the 2012 recruiting class that netted McGary, Stauskas, Robinson, and Albrecht. Originally committed to Ohio, LeVert flipped to Michigan after John Groce went to Illinois. Caris seemed like a holy lock for a redshirt as he came to campus at 6'5", 165 lb, but all through the non-conference season the rumors kept floating out of practice that LeVert was just too good to keep off the floor. Soon enough his redshirt was burned and he stepped into the rotation. From there it was up and down. His physical limitations meant that he wasn't really able to be effective in the offense as anything other than a spot up shooter, and while he did manage to hit a few big shots, he wasn't a great outside shooter overall (30% on 43 3PA).
This year LeVert has been up and down as well, but his ups have been very high indeed. He was the only thing keeping Michigan from getting run off the court against Duke and his herky-jerky ability to drive into the lane has made him a valuable shot creator. At the same time he will have off games where he isn't able to get much going and almost looks like a different player. Since Big Ten play has started, LeVert has settled into a nice role as the third scoring option and a heady facilitator on offense. His length can also be an asset on defense (especially at the top of the 1-3-1 on the rare occasions that Beilein goes with that).
B5Q: We saw Indiana use its zone with some success against Wisconsin on Tuesday, though I don't expect the Badgers to miss that many open 3-pointers again. How much zone is Beilein using this season compared to previous years?
MnB: He has used a bit more this year, and with Michigan featuring so many long wing players (Stauskas, LeVert, and Robinson are all every bit of 6'6") it has been an effective way to throw a curve ball at opposing teams. At this point, any use of the zone is much more the exception than the rule, and Michigan has gone whole games at a time without throwing out that look. I wouldn't expect it in any big way against Wisconsin — especially considering the Badgers' ability to shoot over it.
B5Q: So I made it this far without even mentioning Glenn Robinson III or Nik Stauskas, Michigan's two stars. Seeing how easily the Hoosiers got points in the paint against Wisconsin, I'm a bit worried about matching up with Little Big Dog, but Stauskas is the real killer (132 ORtg) in line for All-Big Ten honors at this point. Which guy is a bigger key to a Michigan win? Which matchup do you prefer against Wisconsin?
MnB: I would have to go with Stauskas. Robinson is a capable scorer, deadly in transition, and good for at least one highlight reel dunk a game, but he is where possessions end. Stauskas on the other hand has taken the Not Just A Shooter meme and blown it completely up this year. He has the best assist rate of any Wolverine starter and is far and away the best Wolverine when it comes to generating FT attempts with a FT rate of 63.4. Over the last few games Michigan has gone heavily to the pick-and-roll with him and he has made opposing teams wrong almost every time. Go under the screen and he can pull up and hit the outside shot, bring too much pressure with a hedge and he is tall enough and heady enough to make the pass down to Morgan/Horford. Brian at MGoBlog compared Stauskas' role in the offense this year to what Darius Morris brought a couple years back, and it's an apt comparison. While Stauskas isn't the primary ball handler up the court, almost every single possession either goes through him or ends with a shot attempt from him, and with a 61.8 eFG% it is a good bet that those shots will lead to points more often than not. Michigan needs him to preform well because of how much pressure he takes off of everyone else.
B5Q: This game is the first of a brutal three-game stretch for the Wolverines, as they next play Iowa at home then head to East Lansing. How do you see Michigan faring during this stretch and where do you see them fitting into the conference race when all is said and done?
MnB: I talked about this earlier in the week in a two part email exchange I did with the other guy at MnB who covers basketball (part 1, part 2). The schedule makers in the Big Ten have to be a sadistic bunch, because Michigan has this brutal three game stretch, three games against Purdue, Nebraska, and Indiana, and then another four-game stretch against Iowa, OSU, MSU, and Wisconsin. If Michigan had a chance to breathe between some of those games against the top teams in the conference I would like its odds to win two or three of those games and maybe even score an upset on the road. However, the way the schedule sets up it really feels like Michigan could go 0-3 in the first stretch and 0-4 in the last. Last year Michigan ran into a similar stretch of games against Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State, and the Wolverines barely manged to go 1-3 in that time with a 1-1 record in OT.
When all is said and done I see Michigan being somewhere around 10 or 11 wins in the Big Ten and fighting for 5th place on the clear second tier with Indiana. If Michigan still had Mitch McGary I could see it giving a little stronger challenge to the top teams in the Big Ten, but without his contributions on both ends of the floor this feels like a Michigan team that is going to hit too many slow stretches against really good perimeter defenses in games against the Big Ten's best. Ten or 11 wins should be enough to get Michigan into the tournament, but one or two upset wins over OSU-MSU-UW-IU would help puff up the resume a bit.
Thanks again to Zach, for providing some insight on what should be a very interesting game. Give him a follow on Twitter @zach_travis.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Jordan Morgan, Sr.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Glenn Robinson III, So.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G / F||Nik Stauskas, So.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Caris LeVert, So.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Derrick Walton, Fr.|
KenPom win probability: 78% (71-63 W) 60 possessions
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