Game: (20) Michigan (19-7) @ Wisconsin (11-15)
When: Sunday, February 11th, 1:00 PM ET
Where: Kohl Center, Madison, WI
Spread: -4 Michigan
Michigan comes into this game 3-2 in their last five games, their latest a discouraging road loss to Northwestern. After beating the Wildcats nine days prior in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines failed to replicate their first half performance against the Wildcats’ aggressive match-up zone defense, only scoring a mere 20 points in the second half. Similarly, Wisconsin limps into this game losers of 4 of their last 5, their only win against hapless Illinois on Thursday. Michigan is 2-4 in their last 6 against Wisconsin dating back to the 2014-2015 season. They’ll try to replicate their scintillating performance last time these two teams met: last year’s Big Ten Tournament Championship.
UM brings its shooting woes into the Kohl Center, a place that has not been kind to them in recent years. Michigan hasn’t won in Madison since the 2013-14 season when they made it to the Elite Eight. This is bad news for a team that has only shot above 33% from three in one of their past 6 games. Michigan has struggled mightily and played down to their competition in recent games. They’ve failed to really put away teams mostly due to their poor free throw shooting. Only one of Michigan’s primary rotation players shoots above 80% from the line. The team shoots 64% from the stripe, ranking a woeful 339th in the country. For a team with serious tournament aspirations, this could spell doom come tournament time.
However, that’s not to say Michigan is down and out. John Beilein has shown time and again that he can get the most out of his players, and one can only hope that he has them ready to play soon. Hopefully the Northwestern loss will serve as a wake up call to this team. Michigan is too talented to continually play down to their competition and hopefully they can get hot going into the Big Ten Tournament.
Wisconsin has really felt the effects of losing big time contributors the past couple years such as Zak Showalter, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Vitto Brown. A young, inexperienced team devoid of backcourt leaders is not a recipe for success in competitive conference such as the Big Ten. Wisconsin currently sits at 4-9 in the Big Ten and 11-15 overall. At this point, barring a miracle, they’ll miss the tournament for the first time this century.
The only player that has kept the Badgers from being cellar-dwellers this year is redshirt junior Ethan Happ. Happ had high expectations coming into the season after his breakout season last year. With the absence of Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes this year, Happ has had a chance to control the offense. He has averaged 17.8 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game so far. Though maybe not the season they hoped for, the Badgers and coach Greg Gard can find solace in the emergence of Happ.
X-Factors and Keys to the Game
X-Factor: Charles Matthews
Though most will be focused on the Wagner vs Happ matchup (and I will touch on that later), I think it’s important that Matthews asserts himself in a game like this. Expectations were high for the Kentucky transfer this year, but Matthews’ overall poor shooting has led to an underwhelming season. The silver lining to his struggles are that he will most likely be back next year. With no Nigel Hayes to worry about, Michigan has to hope that Matthews can get his shot whenever he wants and make his free throws.
Key: Start Fast
The one thing that has plagued Michigan constantly throughout the season has been their inability to start hot and hold off inferior teams. Too many teams have they struggled mightily to start the game before turning it on towards the end of the half and hanging on in the second. If they continue their early game struggles against Wisconsin, they could be in trouble. However, if Michigan goes up by double digits early, they could finally have a relatively stress free second half.
X-Factor: Ethan Happ
This one was fairly obvious, but Wisconsin’s best player has to be at his absolute best if Wisconsin are to pull off the upset. He averaged 16 points per game in his three games versus Michigan last season, and he needs to keep Michigan’s bigs in foul trouble and utilize his excellent post repertoire to keep Wisconsin’s offense humming. His defense task is just as great. If he is able to step out and guard Wagner while also keeping with him down low, Wisconsin might be able to get stops and stall Michigan’s offense. Happ will be playing a majority of the game today and he must play near-flawless if the Badgers hope to upset Michigan.
Key: Force Turnovers and Keep the Game Close
The two things Michigan teams do very well are avoiding turnovers and not fouling. However, this team shown it can be careless with the ball at times. If Wisconsin can capitalize on Michigan’s offensive mistakes and turn these into offense on the other end, they have a good chance to come away with a win. Lastly, if they can keep it close down the stretch, Michigan has shown no capability to ice the game with timely free throws. If Wisconsin can force Michigan to win the game from the free throw line, they will at least have a fighting chance.
Despite Michigan’s recent offensive woes, I believe last game’s hiccup against Northwestern will serve as a wake up to Beilein and the players. Expect Wisconsin to keep it competitive early, but Michigan’s overall talent will prevail in the end.
Prediction: Michigan wins 65-59