Who: Wisconsin Badgers (18-10, 10-5 Big Ten)
When: Sunday, February 28th, at 6:00 p.m. ET (BTN)
Where: Kohl Center -- Madison, Wis.
Saturday was not the best for Michigan because almost every other bubble team that took the court emerged victorious. Providence, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt, Butler, Temple, VCU, St. Bonaventure, Alabama, Gonzaga, Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Stanford -- teams that will be fighting the Wolverines for at-large bids -- all won. The only exceptions were Florida, Marquette, and George Washington, the last of which lost to VCU, which means that a bubble team was going down in that game no matter what.
Nonetheless, Michigan still controls its destiny as it pursues an at-large bid. Of the 81 brackets that Bracket Matrix assessed in its Saturday morning update, 80 included Michigan in the field. Where they included Michigan in the field varies though. Some have the Wolverines as a #8 or #9 seed. Others have them as one of the last teams in, sending them to the First Four in Dayton. The reason for this variance is Michigan's odd resume, which features three excellent wins, no bad losses, but also no other wins of much quality. No one knows how the selection committee will evaluate that resume. Will the committee reward Michigan because it's shown it can beat some of the nation's top teams and hasn't been upset? Or will it punish Michigan for not beating enough quality teams? The latter question is why Michigan is on the bubble, but the Wolverines can fix that in their final two regular-season games: today at Wisconsin and next weekend versus Iowa. The Badgers and Hawkeyes are RPI top-50 teams. If Michigan can beat just one of them and win its first Big Ten Tournament game, it should safely be dancing.
So today's game isn't a must-win for Michigan, but it's still very, very important.
Michigan probably wishes that the Big Ten had scheduled this game back in early January. On January 12th, Wisconsin lost to Northwestern in Evanston to drop to 9-9 (1-4 Big Ten) for the season. The Badgers weren't playing terribly, but they were losing lots of close games -- seven of their first nine losses were by six points or fewer -- as they adjusted to life without Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Bo Ryan, the last of whom retired mid-season and allowed longtime assistant Greg Gard to audition for the job.
Since then, however, Wisconsin has been on an absolute tear. The Badgers have won nine of their last 10 games and beaten the Big Ten's best teams in the process. They accrued wins at home against Michigan State and Indiana and on the road against Maryland -- the Terrapins' only home conference loss in two seasons -- and Iowa. And Wisconsin's only Big Ten loss during this stretch? In East Lansing against Michigan State, who's performing like the best team in the country at the moment. In the span of 1.5 months, Wisconsin has transformed from a team that was nowhere near the NCAA Tournament field into a team that a #2 or #3 seed will absolutely hate to battle in the second round.
One reason for this transformation has been the turnaround of Wisconsin's offense, which now is 57th in adjusted efficiency (110.8). In the first 18 games, Wisconsin failed to reach a point per possession eight times, and seven of those times resulted in losses. In the last 10 games, it's happened only once: the road loss to Michigan State. So what changed? Wisconsin's shooting. The Badgers were very inconsistent from the field earlier in the season due to their reliance on mid-range jumpers, and how they shoot has had a great effect on the outcome of their games. They are 18-1 when they post a 45.8 eFG% or better and 0-9 when they don't. Given that Wisconsin is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, it's clear that UW is shooting better than its 48.9 eFG% (218th) indicates. The Badgers also do a great job of crashing the offensive glass (38th in OR%) and are solid at getting to the line (95th in FTR) and holding onto the ball (101st in TO%).
Wisconsin pairs this rising offense with a strong defense that is 22nd in adjusted efficiency (95.1). The Badgers still run the vaunted pack-line defense. In this defense, all four off-ball defenders are in help positions within an imaginary arc that is 16 feet away from the rim rather than denying passing lanes on the perimeter. When the ball is passed around the perimeter, the next defender closes out to provide on-ball pressure while the previous on-ball defender falls back to help inside the pack line. Not only does this deter offenses from trying to penetrate into a clogged lane, the closeout runs players off the three-point line and induces them to dribble in and shoot mid-range jumpers -- the least efficient shot in basketball. This is why Wisconsin allows opponents to shoot only 44.1 percent on twos (33rd) and attempt only 29.2 percent of their shots from downtown (18th in 3PA%). Also, two other trends have emerged in Big Ten play: the Badgers have forced the highest rate of turnovers (20.4 pct.) but are vulnerable on the boards (12th in DR%).
The only two key Wisconsin contributors back from last season's national runner-ups are 6-foot-8 junior forward Nigel Hayes and 6-foot-4 junior point guard Bronson Koenig. Hayes is the team's leading scorer with 16.4 PPG, but his efficiency has tumbled (123.8 in 2015 to 107.3 in 2016) now that he's not the third leg of a tripod (21.0 usg% in 2015 to 27.0 usg% in 2016). He puts up lots of mid-range jumpers and doesn't finish too well near the tin (41.1 2P%), while having a tougher time getting open looks from three (31.4 3P%) because defenses no longer need to swarm Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Nonetheless, Hayes remains excellent at drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line (61.7 FTR), where he sinks his freebies (74.1 FT%) and gets a big chunk of his points.
Koenig is the point guard, but he's not much of a distributor. He averages only 2.3 APG and has an assist rate of 14.7 percent. Both of those figures fall short of Hayes' passing numbers. Instead, Koenig makes his mark as a scorer (13.5 PPG). He's still a lethal three-point shooter (40.2 3P%), and what's scary is that only 57.4 percent of his made threes are assisted. Koenig is not someone that needs a teammate to get him shots on the perimeter. He can do it all by himself, and defenses have a tough time stopping it. Where defenses don't have a tough time stopping him is inside the arc (40.0 2P%). He's not nearly as effective with his pull-up mid-range jumpers as he is with his pull-up threes.
Next are the starters that you either never saw or saw very little of before this season. The best of that trio is 6-foot-9 freshman center Ethan Happ, who will be a thorn in the side of many Big Ten teams for the next three seasons. Happ has registered 11.9 PPG in his first season on the court and is a five-feet-and-in type of scorer (53.2 2P%). Almost all of his field goals are layups and dunks, and his presence around the rim gets him to the free-throw line often (54.5 FTR, 64.1 FT%). He rarely will shoot a mid-range jumper, and, when he does, it usually goes very poorly (16.1 pct.). Happ also is a jack-of-all-trades player. He's a fantastic rebounder on both ends (7.9 RPG, 10.5 OR%, 23.6 DR%), thief (4.1 stl%), and rim protector (3.4 blk%). Like I said, Big Ten fans will love to hate him soon.
The other two are 6-foot-8 junior forward Vitto Brown and 6-foot-2 junior shooting guard Zak Showalter. Brown's scoring has been down in the conference season (9.2 PPG overall, 8.2 PPG in Big Ten play), but he's been much smarter and not pressing as much (105.6 ORtg overall, 115.8 ORtg in Big Ten play). As a result, his two-point shooting has risen (53.8 pct. in Big Ten play) while his turnovers have gone down. Brown tends to score five to nine points each game, but he's capable of going off like when he dropped 51 points in a three-game stretch to start the month. He's also a very good rebounder (5.2 RPG, 9.1 OR%, 16.2 DR%). Showalter is a model of efficiency (118.4 ORtg) but doesn't get many touches (13.2 usg%). When he does, however, he either takes it to the rack (59.4 2P%) or fires threes (37.0 3P%). As the percentages show, he does both pretty well.
Wisconsin rides its starters for most of the game and has one of the shorter benches in nation (335th in pct. of bench minutes). Nonetheless, the three main reserves to watch for are 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Jordan Hill, 6-foot-5 freshman wing Khalil Iverson, and 6-foot-9 freshman forward Alex Illikainen, though none of them average more than 3.3 PPG. Hill has a problem with turnovers (22.1 pct.) but compensates for it by being the team's best finisher at the rim and hitting 36.6 percent of his threes. Iverson has a bigger problem with turnovers (28.6 pct.) and isn't much of a shooter, but his athleticism makes him an asset near the basket as a scorer (52.0 2P%) -- just watch this ridiculous baseline dunk he threw down against Iowa earlier this week -- offensive rebounder (7.0 pct.), and shot blocker (3.7 pct.). Illikainen is a stretch forward as four-fifths of his field-goal tries are jumpers, and he has little problem knocking them down (50.0 2P%, 37.5 3P%).
Hands Off Hayes and Happ: Both Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are tough to handle when they have ball in their hands down low. So much so, in fact, that defenses can't help but foul them and send them to the free-throw line as both have free-throw rates over 50 percent. Though Wisconsin has shot the ball much better from the field of late, the Badgers' shooting can be very sporadic when they settle for mid-range jumpers, so Michigan doesn't want to give them free points at the line. Michigan is one of the best at not fouling (15th in FTR), and Mark Donnal has improved at staying vertical when defending on the block. He can make life tough for Happ, but Hayes could be a big issue.
Ignite Irvin: Zak Irvin needs to get out of his funk. He's topped an offensive rating of 100 just once in his past five games, and, in the one game that he did do it, he was MIA for the entire first half before exploding in the second half to finish with 22 points and carry Michigan to a huge home win over Purdue. Simply, the Wolverines won't beat the Badgers unless Irvin plays well. Wisconsin's pack-line defense will cause Michigan to shoot lots of mid-range jumpers. Michigan shouldn't fall into this trap, but it will. And Irvin often will be the Wolverine that takes a few dribbles inside the arc before rising and firing. Michigan needs Irvin to hit those shots, especially because Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman may have a tougher time navigating a much-more congested lane than usual.
Burn Sage: The Trohl, er, Kohl Center is an evil place. Not as evil as Assembly Hall, but evil enough to be the setting of the next season of American Horror Story. Michigan must try to cleanse this villainous venue and eradicate its bad spirits and juju. However, in the very likely event that burning sage doesn't work, Michigan needs to remain composed when things start to go wrong, which they will. The Wolverines have a bad habit of digging themselves a hole and allowing the better opponents that they face to string together long runs. Michigan can't let that happen again against Wisconsin, and one way to do that is not to turn the basketball over against a defense that loves to force them.
Wisconsin is hot, Michigan is not, and Caris LeVert's lower left leg is being a snot -- he hasn't been practicing and may be ruled out for the season next week. Even though the Wolverines have the outside shooters needed to beat Wisconsin's pack-line defense, they have had quite the cold spell lately. That won't change this evening as the Badgers continue to surge and Michigan plays for its NCAA Tournament life next weekend.
Wisconsin 66, Michigan 57