Hoops Preview: No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers head to Ann Arbor on Sunday looking to extend their winning streak to four.

Date: Sunday, Feb. 16

Time: 1:00 ET

Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.--Crisler Center

TV: CBS

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The Wolverines went down to Columbus on Tuesday and scored yet another win in a venue in which they've had minimal success in recent years. Along with the wins at the Breslin and Kohl Centers, and it's been a tremendous season for Michigan on the road; with only two road games left, against Purdue and Illinois, Michigan has a chance to finish with a 7-2 Big Ten record away from home. In a word, that is incredible.

With that said, the rest of the season will largely be about holding serve at home, especially in the coming 10 days, when the Badgers and Spartans come to Ann Arbor. If Michigan is really a team aiming for a Big Ten title --outright or shared-- they will have to win one, if not both of these upcoming two games at the Crisler Center.

Season So Far

I already previewed the Badgers earlier this season, so you can head there for a beefier rundown of Wisconsin's personnel.

As far the Badgers' season following the loss to Michigan in Madison on Jan. 18 --when the Badgers were No. 3 in the country-- things continued to trend downward before they recently got better.

After losing in Bloomington and against Michigan, the Badgers lost three of their next four, with losses at Minnesota and, unthinkably, their second and third losses at home (against Northwestern and Ohio State). In a relatively short time, the Badgers went from a Final Four squad in the minds of many media folks to a second tier Big Ten squad.

But, give Bo Ryan and Co. credit, they're righted the ship after a brutal stretch during which the Badgers continued to play uncharacteristically poor defense (by their standards) and the shooters cooled down significantly. UW went down to Champaign on Feb. 4 and scored a 12-point victory, albeit against a struggling Illini squad.

Not impressed with that? Well, the Badgers then knocked off Michigan State at home this past Sunday, capped by a game-winning jumper from UW's modern-day basketball version of John Navarre, Traevon Jackson. For as much flak as he's gotten for his turnovers and shooting woes, he came up big again for the Badgers when it counted.

On Thursday, the Badgers welcomed rival Minnesota to the Kohl Center. They struggled in the opening five or six minutes before eventually cruising to a comfortable 78-70 victory, paced by 20 points and six rebounds from Ben Brust.

Personnel

As I mentioned already, this personnel rundown will be a bit shorter--by now, you should know who all these guys are.

The sophomore Sam Dekker leads the way with 13.5 ppg. In home losses against Northwestern and Ohio State, Dekker scored 11 and four points, respectively. In wins against at Purdue, at Illinois and Michigan State at home, Dekker averaged 14.0 ppg, including a combined 7-for-13 mark from beyond the arc against Illinois and Michigan State.

Josh Gasser and Ben Brust's three-point percentages cooled down some during UW's slump, but they're still shooting 43 and 38 percent from three, respectively. As always, these are the guys to keep an eye on when the Badgers do try to push the pace, which hasn't happened as much as it did during nonconference play.

The much improved Frank Kaminsky gives UW 12.3 ppg and a tied for team best 6.0 rpg. Kaminsky's field goal percentage has dipped a bit, from around 57 percent percent about a month ago to to the 53 percent it is now. Nonetheless, during Big Ten play he's still top 10 in the conference in the following categories: effective field goal percentage, field goal percentage, and two-point field goal percentage, not to mention offensive rebounding percentage and block percentage. In the Northwestern and Ohio State losses, Frank the Tank went just 4-for-15 from the field. However, against the Spartans he pitched in 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks, a solid all-around effort for the 7-footer.

Of course, no discussion of the Badgers could go without mentioning the much-maligned Traevon Jackson, who has pushed Badgers fans towards feelings of elation and frustration at various points this season. Jackson's turnover problem has not gone away --even without Keith Appling on the floor, he turned it over five times last Sunday. At this point, with George Marshall's transfer and Bronson Koenig being just a freshman, UW doesn't really have any other true point guard options. Nonetheless, Jackson has been up to the challenge of making the big shot at times, and he does shoot a sterling 38 percent from three, funky shooting motion and all.

Off the bench, freshman F Nigel Hayes has gone from a nice 6th man/X-factor type to an outright solid to pretty good Big Ten bruiser. Even in the one-point loss to Ohio State, Hayes scored 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting, a game-high for the Badgers. He also pitched in 14 points against both Illinois and Michigan State on a combined 8-for-12 shooting from the field. The freshman --who looks nothing like a true freshman, physically-- is fourth in the conference in eFG% during conference play. More impressively, he's first in free throw rate, a testament to his ability to bull his way to the line, even on the rare occasion that he does miss in the paint.

Game Keys

  • Attack, attack, attack. The temptation to attempt three after three, especially after Michigan's shooting performance in Madison, will be high. But, at home, Michigan will want to put its head down and get to the cup early. If that can result in two early fouls for Kaminsky, all the better, as it would remove UW's shot-blocker for a stretch.
  • Get Nik Stauskas going early. The Badgers don't seem to have the small but quick guy that teams have trotted out against Stauskas of late; Michigan's Mississaugan should be able to do some damage off the bounce once again. Despite dropping 15 points on the Buckeyes, Stauskas didn't drop a single dime. Derrick Walton's six assists covered for that a bit, but Stauskas will need to get back to his distributing ways on Sunday.
  • Put a body on Hayes. Easier said than done, but Hayes is essentially a starter now, and he's made the Badgers forget about the losses of Mike Brusewitz, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans in the frontcourt in recent games. While Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan have held their own most of the time this season, they'll need to bring it once again. If Hayes gets into the double-digits in points and makes several trips to the charity stripe, Michigan could be in trouble.

Outlook

Not to delve into the dreaded world of sports cliches, but there is some serious letdown potential in this one for the Wolverines (as much as a loss against a still very dangerous, ranked Wisconsin squad can be a "letdown").

Michigan, particularly Derrick Walton, showed major toughness in Columbus on Tuesday. They will need to bring that same intensity, especially in a game that could devolve into a stereotypical muck-a-thon if the Wolverines don't completely shoot the lights out like they did last time (which I probably wouldn't bet on).

With that said, I think Michigan has accrued more than enough good will this season to expect a win on Sunday at home. A loss won't be the end of Michigan's title hopes by any means, especially with a visit from the Spartans next weekend.

However, a loss would certainly make things a little bit tougher for the Wolverines. These are the games that champions have to win, even if it's not as aesthetically pleasing as fans might like.
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