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Q&A: Michigan writer talks freshman guards, previews Wisconsin, and picks a winner

Read here for insight behind enemy lines. Who will be the victor between Michigan and Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin Badgers face a tough matchup against the Michigan Wolverines in the two teams’ first game at the Kohl Center since the well-known Juwan Howard-Greg Gard incident last year that suspended the Michigan head coach for the remainder of the season.

Ahead of this matchup, while there doesn’t appear to be bad blood, it should be an intense battle between two rival teams.

To get further insight into how the Wolverines might play on Tuesday, we caught up with On3’s Michigan writer Clayton Sayfie, who gave his thoughts on the matchup, including a score prediction.

Q. Michigan is in a similar state to Wisconsin in the standings. How do you think they’ll come out after a tough, close loss to Indiana?

A: It’s a great question. Saturday’s 62-61 loss to Indiana was heartbreaking. Michigan played well enough to win, led for 34 of 40 minutes but failed to score in the final 5:12 and still only lost by one point.

Junior center Hunter Dickinson admitted postgame that it was going to be tough to not let that one linger. With a short turnaround and heading on a road trip, it’ll be a big challenge for him, his fellow leaders, and the coaches to get the team refocused.

Michigan is still desperate, needing at least four more wins to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament, so the sense of urgency the Wolverines have played with over the last four games should be there.

Q. It’ll be an intriguing battle between two offensive freshman guards in Jett Howard and Connor Essegian. What’ve you seen from Howard this season and how integral will his performance be for Michigan?

Michigan freshman guard Jett Howard is an incredible offensive talent, a reason why he’s a projected first-round pick with the potential to go in the lottery. He’s a great, high-volume three-point shooter, and can get looks both off the dribble and on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Shot selection is a concern with Howard. There are times he shoots too early in the clock, and against a team like Wisconsin which plays a slow pace, forces a lot of turnovers, and doesn’t waste possessions itself, making sure Michigan gets a good look every time down will be crucial.

Howard also struggles mightily on the defensive end of the floor. He has good size and length but lacks basic defensive instincts and gets caught sleeping at times. Wisconsin would be wise to run Essegian off screens and curls to get him open and create space when Howard is guarding him.

Q. How has Michigan’s offense been so strong this season, and where has their defense lacked?

It’s probably no surprise to hear that Michigan plays through Dickinson and lets him go to work on the inside. The team is shooting 51.6 percent on twos during league play and is 8-2 when connecting on better than 55 percent of its shots from inside the arc, but the offense really gets going when the backcourt plays well and hits their shots from the outside.

Sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin has become a steady presence offensively as of late, particularly with his ability to drive and get to the rim. Freshman point guard Dug McDaniel is a bit hit or miss — one good game, one bad game, etc. — but it’s important to note he was supposed to be averaging 10 minutes per game this season instead of 30-plus. The early-December season-ending ACL injury to graduate point guard Jaelin Llewellyn against Kentucky in London has created depth issues for a young Wolverine backcourt.

The Wolverines take good care of the ball, ranking seventh nationally with a 14.2-percent turnover rate, and have shot 35.8 percent on threes during the conference season.

Q. How does Michigan respond if Wisconsin takes away the three-ball?

It’s really a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses. Most over the last couple of months have chosen to double-team Dickinson, which frees up space for Michigan’s perimeter players. As I mentioned earlier, the Wolverines are lethal when those shots are going in, making for a tough decision on whether or not to stay home on shooters or sell out to stop the 7-foot-1, 260-pound Dickinson. It all kind of works together.

Michigan would probably prefer if Wisconsin chose to take away the three-ball. Jett Howard is going to get a good amount of looks because of his ability to rise up and hit shots even when he has a hand in his face, and other than graduate guard Joey Baker — a Duke transfer who comes off the bench — the Wolverines don’t have many high-level shooters, believe it or not.

At the same time, the Badgers are likely confident in Crowl’s ability to hold up against Dickinson one-on-one.

What’s given Michigan fits at times is when opponents go under ball screens and pack the paint, forcing Bufkin and McDaniel to shoot threes.

Q. What are Michigan’s keys to win on Tuesday?

First, Michigan has to put the Indiana loss behind it. If the Wolverines can do that, they should have a great chance to win their third road game of the season in a venue that Wisconsin has been uncharacteristically mediocre in this season.

The Maize and Blue have to take care of the ball, too. They’ve been stellar at that this season, for the most part, but have also had stretches where the turnovers pile up. Wisconsin forces a lot of turnovers — on 25.6 percent of opponents’ possessions — and is 7-3 when teams give the ball away on 20 or more percent of their trips down the floor.

As long as they value the ball and don’t go cold — something that has happened at different points this season, including against Indiana — Michigan should be able to play an efficient brand of offense. The Badgers slot 10th in the Big Ten in effective field goal percentage defense during conference play.

Finally, Tyler Wahl could be an X-factor, so slowing him down is a big key. He likes to post up and has two inches on Michigan forward Terrance Williams II, who will draw that assignment. If he starts to get going offensively — Wahl has 17 games with 15 or more points during his career — and Michigan has to bring help his way, that could free up some Wisconsin shooters. The Badgers are shooting 46.9 percent on three-point shots that are created out of post-ups, per Synergy.

Q. What’s your score prediction for the game?

Overall, this does feel like a pretty good matchup for Michigan, so long as they can hit enough shots (something they didn’t do in the meeting in Madison last season, when the Wolverines shot 4-of-25 from three-point range) and don’t allow Wisconsin to get going from deep.

Prediction: Michigan 65, Wisconsin 62