Who: No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (17-2, 5-1)
When: Saturday, Jan. 23, 7 ET (ESPN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Amusingly, instead of heading to Ann Arbor for this matchup, I'm catching another Michigan-Wisconsin tilt: on the ice at the Kohl Center in Madison. Unfortunately, that means I'll probably end up missing most of this game, but, then again, maybe that's actually a fortunate thing.
This rickety Millennium Falcon has wheezed and stumbled its way to a 5-2 Big Ten record, somehow getting all they could get out of that one glorious punch into hyperspace. Now, Michigan's schedule thus far has been fairly ideal, especially for a squad struggling as much as Michigan had at the end of the nonconference schedule.
With that said, Bo Ryan's Badgers, even without the services of Traevon Jackson, present Michigan's toughest test of the year. The Wolverines can take solace in the fact that the Badgers did lose on the road at Rutgers (albeit without the Pride of Lisle, Frank Kaminsky, and Jackson for much of the game).
But, as you'll see in the next section, that's just about where the solace ends.
The Badgers come in with just two losses on the season: the aforementioned Rutgers loss and a home loss against Duke on Dec. 3, 80-70, a game that was hotly contested until the Blue Devils pulled away in the end. Jackson dropped 25 points, but Sam Dekker (5 points) and Nigel Hayes (4 points) were relative non-factors, while Kaminsky's 17 points on 5-for-12 shooting represented a good but not great line by the lofty standards he's set for himself. Meanwhile, Duke's Tyus Jones dropped 22, while all-everything freshman Jahlil Okafor scored 13 on 6-for-8 shooting, at times taking Kaminsky to school in the low post.
Other than that, however, the Badgers have steamrolled the competition. Outside of a sleepy 12-point win against Buffalo to close the nonconference slate, their closest wins came against Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals, 68-65, and Oklahoma by seven in the finals.
Their next closest victory came against in-state rival Marquette on the road, a 49-38 grind-it-out win, a callback to the Wisconsin of yesteryear (and by yesteryear I mean pre-2013-14). They also edged California in Berkeley by 12, a game called tremendously by the magisterial Bill Walton himself.
Other than that, it's been a sea of red overwhelming opponents night after night. Purdue did give UW a game at the Kohl Center, but the Badgers ultimately prevailed, 62-55.
Remember when I said the solace ends? Well, Exhibit A is Wednesday's game against the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes. UW routed the previously 4-1 Hawkeyes, 82-50; they led by 18 at the half. As they say, by then, they'd said it all.
This is a team that can beat you down low with Kaminsky's post moves and Hayes's general bullishness, while also killing you from outside. As an outsider, it has actually been fun to see this program evolve from the ugly-ball teams of old into this high-powered dynamic attack.
It's like a humble lump of cheese, emerging from the deep fryer, metamorphosed into a beautiful, golden brown fried curd, a cheese curd that can shoot the three and prevent you from taking them, while also tasting delicious when dipped in marinara or what have you. Wait, what were we talking about again? Right, basketball.
One key to a consistently successful program? Retention! And the Badgers have just that: this is a familiar cast of faces.
Of course, Kaminsky, a national player of the year candidate, leads the way, averaging a team-high 16.9 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game. For good measure, he also blocks 1.8 shots per game and shoots 40.4 percent from beyond the arc. I would say that he's the ideal Beilein big, but that would be silly: he's the ideal anybody big. The guy just does it all. I've said it in summer preview posts and I'll say it again: it still amazes me that he wasn't able to see the floor his first two seasons. Yes yes, I know, Berggren, Brusewitz and Evans, but still.
Joining him in the frontcourt is sophomore F Nigel Hayes. Did you think he was strong as a freshman? Well, he's even stronger now, and he's upped his field goal percentage to 55.3 percent. Wisconsin still isn't big on attacking the offensive boards, but if either Doyle or Donnal pick up a quick two, you can probably say good night to Michigan's chances of having a respectable defensive rebounding percentage. Hayes averages 12.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg.
Sam Dekker, an at times enigmatic player, averages 12.6 ppg and 4.9 rpg. He's upped his percentage from downtown from 32.6 to 35.6 percent this season. That isn't bad at all, but he's still more of a slasher, not to mention a big time threat in transition. Every so often, he does something like this:
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/DQJrjOQJwIM" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
He also joined the 1,000-point club with this flush against Purdue.
The senior from Port Washington, Wis., Josh Gasser, is back once again, contributing tight defense and excellent three-point marksmanship. He's shooting 40.3 percent from downtown, which is actually down from previous seasons, but still pretty darn good. Gasser scored 15 points (second to only Kaminsky that night) on 4-for-7 shooting in the tight home win against Purdue.
Filling in for Jackson is the young but talented Bronson Koenig. After playing freshman minutes last season, he's come on strong in the last three games, scoring 12 against Rutgers, 11 against Nebraska and 13 against Iowa. He's third on the team in three-point attempts with 54, connecting on 37 percent of them. All in all, he's looked like a more than capable fill-in for Jackson, flashing quicks, good basketball sense and the ability to hit a three when needed.
After that, Duje Dukan is the headlining reserve. The 6-foot-9 junior from Deerfield, Ill., averages 6.5 ppg, and can also shoot the trey (35 percent). He posted a solid effort in the 15-point win against Nebraska, scoring 10. He also pitched in 14 in a thumping of Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Zak Showalter, a sophomore from Germantown, Wis., might get some run, too, with Jackson being out. However, if he's getting extensive minutes, like he did against Iowa (18 minutes), that's not a good sign for Michigan.
- Stay out of foul trouble, bigs. Checking Kaminsky and Hayes is going to be difficult enough, but if Michigan is forced to roll with Bielfeldt too much, they'll get exposed in a big way. Now, Bielfeldt came up big against Rutgers, and he has his role on the offensive end, but expecting him to hang with either Kaminsky or Hayes on the defensive end is asking for bad news. Luckily for Michigan, it's a home game, and this is college basketball, so they'll have the benefit of the friendly whistles.
- Mid-range. Wisconsin, as always, will allow you to dribble inside the arc in order to force long twos. It didn't matter at the Kohl Center last year, because Michigan had Nik Stauskas, who could hit it from anywhere in any situation. They do not have Nik Stauskas this year. With that said, Derrick Walton et al will have to be prepared to take a few dribbles and pull up. It won't feel natural for this Beilein-coached team, but it's the reality of playing against a defense like this. Just as important as burying those mid-range shots is not turning it over when caught in that that in-between hinterland wilderness that is 15-20 feet away from the basket.
- Long range. On the flip side, Michigan does have to hit its threes (but you knew that). You can copy and paste this into every preview ever, but when the threes don't fall and Michigan is playing someone other than Rutgers, it just won't work out well. Michigan will have to hope the home rims will be kind. Naturally, they've been slightly better from three on the road (35.6 percent) than at home (33.3 percent) during Big Ten play, on 18 more attempts. Clearly, the road environment makes the three-point trigger finger a little itchier. Playing at home, maybe, just maybe, the Wolverines will be more attuned to running some offense and getting good looks. Either way, the going will be tough.
Wisconsin is actually last in the conference in possessions per 40 minutes during Big Ten play. Not surprisingly, they make that up by being first in efficiency. If that sounds familiar, it's because that's basically what Michigan was all about the past two seasons. Part of that comes with the ability to hit the three; during conference play, Wisconsin is first in three-point field goal percentage (39.7 percent).
They don't turn the ball over (first in turnover percentage) and they don't give up offensive boards (second in ORB%). As always, the margin for error against Wisconsin is razor thin, because that's just how they operate.
The only way to replicate UW's loss at Rutgers is to hope that Kaminsky picks up a quick two and sits most of the first half, then a quick third early in the second. If that doesn't happen, it will probably be a long night for the Wolverines, who just don't have the firepower this year to overcome Wisconsin's hyperefficiency, or combat its frontcourt.
Playing at home, I think the College Gameday environment will give the Wolverines a boost in the first half, but Kaminsky and Co. will prove to be too much in the second. Hopefully for Michigan, the proceedings on the ice will go a little differently than this one. Wisconsin 72, Michigan 58.