It took a personal 11-point run and one incredible step-back 3-pointer by Michigan's Nik Stauskas to finally shut the door on Wisconsin's valiant comeback on Jan. 18, when the Badgers lost to the Wolverines by seven points despite being a defensive sieve for most of the evening.
Wisconsin (20-5, 7-5 Big Ten) heads back out on the road on a bit of a run, having dispatched rivals Michigan State and Minnesota at home to rebuild some of the Badgers' shaken confidence. Offensively, the Badgers must be better finishers in the lane -- Frank Kaminsky and the guards were routinely dismissed near the rim during the previous meeting. But more importantly, UW must continue to improve defensively. Bo Ryan's adage of forcing teams into taking long two-point baskets backfired against Michigan before, a team that's been comfortable being perimeter-oriented for years under John Beilein.
The Wolverines (18-6, 10-2) boast the third-most efficient offense in the country and can hit those same shots again if the Badgers let them. Michigan is undefeated at home during the conference season, which would make a win in Ann Arbor the biggest feather in Wisconsin's cap to date. To get a perspective on what's changed on Michigan's end since last month, Joe Stapleton from UMHoops.com gave us a few answers.
B5Q: Nigel Hayes is averaging 15 points on 73% shooting over the past four games. Since the first Michigan game in Madison, the freshman has grown in confidence and established himself as a focal point Wisconsin's offense. Who's best suited to guard Hayes in your opinion?
UM Hoops (Joe): I'm not sure Michigan has anyone who matches up great with Hayes. He only played 16 minutes in the previous matchup but was efficient and hit a big shot down the stretch for the Badgers when they were making their comeback. His progression since then has been a thing of beauty. His post-up moves look polished and are becoming more and more reliable. Along with his midrange jumpshot, he has become quite the offensive player. If Hayes and Frank Kaminsky are on the court at the same time (seems like Hayes usually comes in for Kaminsky, so correct me if I'm wrong here) then Michigan really has no choice but to put Glenn Robinson III on him. It's not a terrible matchup for Michigan because Robinson's the same height, but he gives up a lot of girth and Robinson hasn't been great guarding post players this season. Michigan would prefer to put either Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford on Hayes -- they both have a couple inches on him and are used to guarding post players. This also frees up Robinson to match up with Sam Dekker. That being said, Hayes's quickness presents trouble for both of Michigan's bigs. The freshman is a beast and will be a tough matchup no matter who's guarding him.
B5Q: How have opponents tried to slow down Nik Stauskas of late? He posted his highest point total in conference (23) against the Badgers, but since then has seen his 12-game streak of double-digit scoring games snapped and was held to five points in that clunker of a loss to Iowa. Stauskas seems like a good enough playmaker that he can make teams pay either way.
UMH: There are two main strategies teams have employed effectively in stopping Nik Stauskas and Wisconsin -- at least traditionally -- does neither of them. The first strategy is to play no-catch, ball-denial defense on Stauskas by putting your quickest player on him, regardless of his height. Duke mostly used Tyler Thornton (6-foot-2) and Matt Jones (6-foot-4) to deny Stauskas the ball and completely neutralized him. Indiana put the 6-foot-nothing Yogi Ferrell on Stauskas and while the Hoosiers did some other tricky things defensively for the most part that matchup worked out well for Indiana. The second strategy, employed by Iowa, is to let Stauskas catch the ball but to not let him do anything with it. Early in the game, this was accomplished by blitzing every ball screen and essentially double-teaming Stauskas with the hard hedge. This was presumably done with the philosophy that taking Stauskas out of the play takes the rolling big man out of the play as well -- this assumption has been proven correct. Stauskas wasn't able to get the edge around the bigs and was forced into some nasty turnovers.
Obviously, Wisconsin's strategy differs markedly from both of these game plans. The Badgers tend to have their bigs sag off the ballhandler in a ball screen set and take away the layup and the dumpoff to the roll man -- to that end, the defense worked well in the last matchup between these two teams. Unfortunately, it gave up all those 15-to-17-footers Michigan was able to knock down.
B5Q: Derrick Walton played a fantastic game against Ohio State the other night (13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists). Describe the progression in his game since the last time these two teams met. Does his maturation take less pressure off of Stauskas and Caris LeVert?
UMH: Derrick Walton has been awesome over the past few games for Michigan, and it really started with his breakout performance against Michigan State -- he scored 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and only one turnover in that game. His progress over the course of the season has been special, but it's not entirely foreign to Michigan fans -- we've been watching assistant coach LaVall Jordan mold first-year starters at point guard for a few seasons now. The key for Walton is simple: confidence. The skills were always there. He's an above-average shooter and he's been hitting everything in sight from beyond the arc all year long. Defensively he's really improved and he's probably Michigan's quickest player, with the only challenger being Caris LeVert. Walton's ability to get to the rim and finish with contact has been exceptional. We're just now seeing his passing ability start to round into form -- he's racked up six assists in each of Michigan's past two games -- but he's still working on getting the big men involved the way Stauskas often does. I think his scoring ability has maybe taken some pressure off Stauskas and LeVert, but Michigan still needs Stauskas to score in order to win.
B5Q: The Wolverine bigs generally looked tougher than Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers previously. In particular, Jordan Morgan had a block party in their last meeting. Has the Jordan Morgan-Jon Horford rotation been consistent this season in accomplishing what John Beilein needs out of them?
UMH: For the most part, yes. The duo hasn't been as productive as late for one simple reason: Nik Stauskas hasn't been able to get them the ball. Both players rely on Stauskas to get their points. Other than the occasional post move from Jon Horford or putback from Morgan, the vast majority of their shot attempts come at the rim off pick-and-roll action. Defensively, Morgan is usually the better option than Horford, although the blocks Morgan got against Wisconsin were a genuine surprise as he's not known as a shot-blocker. However, Horford has outplayed Morgan on defense in each of Michigan's past two games. Morgan has been a beast on the offensive glass lately with five offensive boards against Indiana and six against Ohio State.
The two bigs really complement each other well -- when one isn't playing well, the other tends to step up. John Beilein has said 15 points and 10 rebounds combined from the both of them is along the lines of what he's looking for each game -- which makes sense, given they're collectively replacing Mitch McGary. While their combined scoring isn't quite there, for the most part, they've accomplished that.
B5Q: What's the mindset for Michigan and their fans at this juncture. Is this Big Ten title or bust territory? Final Four or bust? Are you guys bloodthirsty for another shot at a National title?
UMH: I think right now Michigan fans have their sights set on the Big Ten title. The Wolverines came so painfully close to their second straight conference crown a year ago -- a missed tip-in against Indiana by Jordan Morgan ultimately decided it -- and I think the players and fans are seeing red. It's difficult to expect March success, let alone a Final Four, just because of its unpredictable nature. Michigan fans didn't expect to get to another national title game with this team at the beginning of the year, but at this point I think they see more possibilities. With Michigan in the driver's seat for a Big Ten title, fans are taking it one step at a time.
B5Q: Care to make a prediction for Sunday's game?
UMH: I think Michigan wins this one. The Wolverines have only lost one game at home, and that was to No. 1 Arizona by only two points. If Wisconsin takes the same defensive approach as it did in the first meeting and Michigan sees those same shots, I think the Wolverines hit them again. It'll be tough -- Wisconsin always is -- but I predict a 79-72 win.
Obviously I only care about winning this game first, then asking questions about what Bo Ryan drinks for sustenance later. My thanks to KJ for providing some insight into an interesting Michigan State ball club. You can find Joe on Twitter @joe_stapes, along with Dylan and the rest of the crew @umhoops.
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: 29% (72-66 L) 61 possessions
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