Sunday's game between Wisconsin and Michigan is no longer the elimination game it once was shaping up to be, at least from Wisconsin's perspective. Fortunately their upset at Iowa has the Badgers in position to make it's 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament even if they suffer a bump in the road in the next week. Just barely.
The same cannot be said for Michigan, however. The Wolverines (209, 10-6 Big Ten) have an increasingly impressive win over Texas on a neutral court, but otherwise no non-conference wins over tournament teams. In conference, neither of Michigan's big wins -- Maryland or Purdue -- came on the road.
Strange as it sounds, beating Wisconsin (18-10, 10-5) at the Kohl Center is Michigan's best chance at a season-defining road win.
Michigan head coach John Beilein said this week he feels Wisconsin is playing as well as any team in the league right now. He's also wary of the Badgers' ability to operate in the paint with Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes.
Beilein: You know that we're going to get posted up. Doing more dribble post ups. they'll dribble you into a foul.— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) February 26, 2016
Both Happ and Hayes are looking to bounce back from a fairly quiet game against the Hawkeyes, when UW's bench set the Badgers up for the win and point guard Bronson Koenig brought it home. Lacking brawn in its starting lineup, Michigan subs in 6'9" sophomore Ricky Doyle, who just so happens to be a bit foul-prone.
The Wolverines counter with one of the more impressive three-point shooting attacks. Michigan has made 39.8 percent of its long-distance attempts this season and shoots a higher percentage of its shots from behind the arc than any other team during Big Ten play.
A closely-guarded leg injury continues to sideline Michigan star Caris LeVert, who has missed 14 of the last 15 games this season. Yet six of Beilein's seven rotation players shoot better than 35 percent on threes in league play, including all five of his current starters.
Wisconsin's modus operandi under Greg Gard has been to get back to limiting opponent's looks from three-point land, so even if they are hitting them at an obscene rate the Badgers can at least limit the amount of points they surrender from deep. However, UW still suffers from blown coverage around the arc a time or two each game, especially in transition.
Against Michigan the task is harder than usual because it usually means keeping tabs on every player on the court. While Michigan's starters haven't quite kept up their torrid non-conference pace, reserve swingman Aubrey Dawkins leads the Big Ten in three-point shooting at 51 percent. Even big man Mark Donnal went for 25 points on 3-of-4 shooting from downtown in a close loss to Maryland.
In LeVert's absence, point guard Derrick Walton Jr. leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. He also connects on 42 percent of his threes while being able to get to the hoop.
Junior Zak Irvin can caused matchup problems as well, with his strength and ability to play multiple positions. But Wisconsin seems to have an antidote in Hayes, who is making a push for Big Ten all-defensive team honors with his versatile performances at that end.
And furthermore, how will Irvin handle Hayes?
Duncan Robinson, a former prep teammate of Jordan Hill, could be the most dangerous match up. Though his offensive numbers are down lately, at 6'8" Robinson can shoot over smaller defenders and has the quickness to get open on the perimeter against the Badger big men. He has 81 made three-pointers to his credit so far. And Robinson doesn't shoot free throw often, but when he does, it's money in the bank. Robinson has missed only one free throw all year (27-of-28).
Michigan usually plays Wisconsin tough, even winning two years ago at the Kohl Center. Still, Beilein is 2-14 overall versus the Badgers. Beilein's team is playing at a pace closer to Wisconsin's which could help UW eliminate some of those defensive miscues in transition. Either way, the Wolverines will be hungry and motivate to chart some new history against Wisconsin this evening.
The young Badgers need to prove they can handle raised expectations. Remarkably, Wisconsin is tied for fourth in the Big Ten to start the day, and the chance to keep improving on this impressive streak should be motivation enough. But it won't hurt that it's Senior Day too. Who wouldn't want to send Jordan Smith out with a victory?