Who: Wisconsin Badgers (28-3, 16-2 B1G)
Where: United Center -- Chicago, Ill.
When: Friday, March 13th, at Noon ET (ESPN)
Michigan took care of business earlier this afternoon, bouncing Illinois from the Big Ten Tournament with a 73-55 win and into the NIT for the second straight year. Michigan would like to join Illinois in the NIT, but today's win likely wasn't enough to propel them into the field unless there's a major shakeup. But an upset of Wisconsin would guarantee Michigan a non-losing record versus D-I teams and should be enough to ensure an NIT invitation. Of course, if the Wolverines shock Wisconsin, they would find themselves in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and just two wins away from completing a magical run to the NCAA Tournament. Yesterday, Michigan winning the Big Ten Tournament was a pipe dream. With a win over Wisconsin, fantasy would begin to blend with reality.
Wisconsin is a juggernaut. Not only did Wisconsin post a 16-2 conference record and win the Big Ten by two games, Wisconsin's Big Ten efficiency margin was plus-21.1 points per 100 possessions. That's the best mark by a Big Ten team since the 2005 Illinois squad that went 37-2 and lost to North Carolina in the national championship game. Yes, Wisconsin may be the best Big Ten team of the last decade. Wheeeeee! However, one of Wisconsin's three losses was to Rutgers, who lost 15 straight games thereafter to end their season. Though Frank Kaminsky was out and Traevon Jackson exited with a broken foot, it's a result that makes you scratch your head and ponder, "How in the heck did that happen?" But it also serves as a reminder that any team can beat any opponent on any given day.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin is elite because they own the nation's best offense. The Badgers top KenPom's opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency metric (123.1) and are threatening to surpass the record that Michigan set last season (124.1). Wisconsin scores at such a blistering rate because -- shocker! -- there is not one spot in the half court from where they cannot score. I mean, just look at how incredible this Wisconsin shot chart is:
(via Shot Analytics)
Alright, maybe Wisconsin isn't invincible from behind the arc, particularly the right corner, but they're lethal inside of it. The Badgers have one of the nation's best two-point shooting marks because, not only can they finish well around the rim, they're exceptional from mid-range. Of the high-major teams and few others that Shot Analytics tracks, only Arizona and Gonzaga are more proficient. Then, once you consider that Wisconsin has the nation's best turnover rate, it doesn't matter that they don't gather many offensive boards or get to the free-throw line all of the time. The simple formula of not wasting possessions and scoring on the first try is all Wisconsin needs to decimate defenses.
On the other end of the floor, Wisconsin isn't spectacular, but they're still great, sitting at 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency (93.5). Wisconsin employs the pack-line defense, which is a man defense that emphasizes running shooters off the three-point line into mid-range areas where help will be waiting. Teams must rely on mid-range jumpers to score because open threes just aren't available. Then, when offenses miss those mid-range jumpers, which happens often given how tough those shots are, they can't produce second-chance points because Wisconsin has the nation's fourth-best defensive rebounding rate. Add in that Wisconsin sends opponents to the free-throw line less than any team in the nation, and you can see why Wisconsin's defense is tough to crack.
The Badgers have a triumvirate of excellent big men, and it starts with Big Ten Player of the Year and National Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky. He was third in the Big Ten in scoring (18.4), second in rebounding (8.1), and first in offensive rating (126.7) among those with a usage rate above 20 percent. Though Kaminsky is a seven-footer, the offense runs through him -- as it should -- because there's nothing that he can't do. He can set up on the block and beat you to the rim with a post move. He can back out to the three-point line and bury a triple (41 pct.). If a defense opts to send a double team at him, he has the height, vision, and ball skills to find the open teammate on the perimeter. And, because Kaminsky does it so efficiently, he's an absolute terror to defend. Further, Kaminsky has developed into a solid defender as well, which used to be a weakness of his because he lacked lateral quickness. But, now that he can defend the post in addition to being an excellent rebounder and shot-blocker, he's the nation's best all-around player.
The other two outstanding Wisconsin big men are Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, both of whom are nearly as efficient on offense as Kaminsky. Dekker is a 6-foot-9 forward that averaged 13.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, which earned him All-Big Ten second-team honors. He does most of his work inside, where he's one of the best finishers around the bucket in the Big Ten and leads the team in put-backs. He also has a nice touch on shots from the right elbow and the right wing, but he struggles with shots from any other spot outside 10 feet. However, that's where Hayes, who averaged 12 points and 6.4 rebounds and was named to the All-Big Ten third team, steps in. Hayes has a terrific mid-range game, making 48 percent of his shots from that area. And, if he needs to, he can step back and drill threes as well (37.5 pct.) -- something he never tried once as a freshman last season. Hayes also is a better rebounder and passer than Dekker but doesn't finish as well at the rim. It's just unfair Wisconsin has these two and Kaminsky.
Rounding out the starting lineup are Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser. Koenig has filled in as the starting point guard since Traevon Jackson broke his foot two months ago -- Jackson is unlikely to play in the Big Ten Tournament -- and Wisconsin's offense has been humming ever since. Jackson is solid, but he has a knack for being a ball-stopper and taking on the entire defense in iso. Conversely, Koenig allows the offense to flow through the big men, and, when they find him on the perimeter, he makes defenses pay (39.8 pct.). Gasser makes them pay from downtown (37.7 pct.), too, and can get to the free-throw line. Gasser also has a reputation for being a physical perimeter defender.
Wisconsin relies on its starters more than most teams, so the Badgers' substitutes should not have much of an impact. The bench player that earns the most playing time is 6-foot-10 Duje Dukan. He has an inside-outside game, albeit a below-average one as he's made a poor 54 percent of his shots at the rim and only 29 percent of his threes -- he's solid from the left wing and straightaway, though. He also will make his presence known on the boards. The other two subs are Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, both of whom will earn very few minutes. Both are good rebounders, but neither of them is an offensive threat.
The 2-3 Zone Isn't For Cowards: Wisconsin's offense performs at a near-historic level because few teams have the length and athleticism to slow down the Badgers. Michigan is the rule, not the exception. So Michigan must pick its poison. Man defense means that Wisconsin's trio of skilled bigs, all of whom are at least 6-foot-8, will be guarded by wings of the 6-foot-6 variety. Kaminsky, Dekker, and Hayes would pummel Michigan inside. A 1-3-1 zone can cause havoc, but it won't against an offense that commits fewer turnovers than any other team in the nation. So that leaves Michigan with the 2-3 zone. This isn't a perfect solution because all five of Wisconsin's starters can hit threes, but Michigan would rather hope that the Badgers have an off shooting performance from the outside than permit them to run layup lines. It's a gamble, but it's better than certain death.
Zak Irvin Doesn't Feel His Face: Wisconsin's pack-line defense is so effective because they have so much length at all five positions. They use that length to run shooters off the three-point line and protect the rim if the dribbler drives too deep. Thus, it's imperative to make mid-range shots against Wisconsin because they're the shots that Michigan will take the most. But Michigan doesn't have a player that specializes in them. Aubrey Dawkins is more of a three-point sniper. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman puts his head down when he drives and muscles his way into the paint. Spike Albrecht is so-so from mid-range, but clean releases over Wisconsin's length with his smaller size will be an issue. The closest person Michigan has is Zak Irvin, a player that has made great strides in recent weeks. The game has slowed down for him, and, thus, he's averaged 16.4 points, 5.9 boards, and 2.9 assists in his last eight games. Michigan needs that Irvin to light it up from mid-range tomorrow. It's their best shot to keep pace with Wisconsin.
Ricky Doyle and Max Bielfeldt Become Dennis Rodman: One of the biggest surprises in Michigan's home overtime loss to Wisconsin back in January was that Michigan won the battle on the boards. Michigan rebounded 34.4 percent of their misses thanks to six offensive boards total by Ricky Doyle, Max Bielfeldt, and Mark Donnal. Michigan needs a similar effort on the glass from their centers. The odds that Michigan will catch fire from mid-range and behind the arc are slim, so Michigan needs those second-chance points to remain alive. The good news is that Michigan's centers won't need to battle with Dekker, Hayes, and Kaminsky underneath the rim on every rebound because the long shots that Michigan will take will lead to longer rebounds. If Doyle, Bielfeldt, and Donnal can eye how Michigan's missed shots will ricochet off the iron while the ball is on its way to the rim, they may be able to beat Wisconsin to those longer rebounds. In turn, Michigan will have more opportunities to put points on the scoreboard and register the upset.
Pray: Seriously. Pray. Or bring in Pedro Cerrano to offer a cigar and rum to Jobu.
I want to believe. I do. I want to believe that Michigan's demolition of Illinois this afternoon is the start of something special. There are reasons to believe it could be, too. It's no secret that Michigan lost most of its games down the final stretch of the regular season, but it was a secret that Zak Irvin, Spike Albrecht, Aubrey Dawkins, and Kam Chatman were playing some of the best basketball of their lives. There was progress each game, but everything hadn't clicked yet. Michigan was waiting for the game where all of its players were on the same page for an entire 40 minutes. That game happened today.
However, Michigan isn't facing a bubble team like Illinois. It's facing Wisconsin -- the Big Ten powerhouse that's in line to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Not only are the Badgers more talented than Michigan, they are an awful matchup for Michigan in terms of style and strategy. Yes, Michigan took Wisconsin to the wire in their only prior meeting, but that game was played in primetime in front a frenzied Crisler Center crowd. Tomorrow's game will be played at 11:00 a.m. local time in front of a lifeless United Center crowd. There won't be any energy in the crowd off of which Michigan can feed. Instead, this will be a game about which team can execute better. If Michigan was playing any Big Ten team other than Wisconsin, I would like their chances to advance.
But that's not the case. It is Wisconsin. And that's why I think the season ends tomorrow.
Wisconsin 65, Michigan 57