Jan. 17, 2014
By Jenny Herstein, U-M Public & Media Relations
With a win against Penn State on Tuesday night (Jan. 14), Michigan improved to 4-0 in the Big Ten, its best start to conference play since the 2002-2003, when the Wolverines won their first six conference matchups.
Offensive efficiency has been vital to Michigan's success so far. Against Penn State, the Wolverines shot 52.8 percent from the field, marking the third consecutive game in which the team has shot 50 percent or better from the floor. Michigan currently leads the Big Ten in in both overall (48.4) and conference (53.6) field goal percentage.
Now, however, the team will have to face their toughest stretch in the conference so far, playing back-to-back games against some of the Big Ten's -- and the nation's -- best teams. Michigan's next three games begin with a match-up at Wisconsin (Jan. 18) followed by a home game against Iowa (Jan. 22), and a trip to East Lansing to face Michigan State (Jan. 25).
The Wolverines are facing this stretch the same as they have faced every previous challenge: one game at a time. The No. 3 Badgers will be Michigan's first ranked opponent since it played Arizona on Dec. 14. Yet, in the hunt for a Big Ten championship, no game matters more than any other.
"As much as I'd like to put a lot of weight on this game, I think every game for us is big," said co-captain graduate student Jordan Morgan. "We want to win championships, and right now, our next opportunity is winning the Big Ten regular-season championship. That's game by game, especially with a young team like this. We can't take any game more seriously than any other game. From my experience in this league, it doesn't matter how good you are. You can't do that. Last year, we lost to Penn State at Penn State, and they didn't have a win. Every single game is a championship for us. That's how we approach this Big Ten season."
At the same time, the Wolverines recognize that this game provides them with a great opportunity.
"The fact that we have this opportunity tomorrow is going to be a game to prove ourselves and show people that we belong," said sophomore Nik Stauskas.
But taking advantage of that opportunity will not be easy.
"From the time (head coach) Bo (Ryan)'s been there (at Wisconsin), it's been a tremendous model of how to run a successful Division I program," said head coach John Beilein. "We've got our work cut out for us."
"They don't beat themselves," said Morgan. "They're very disciplined. You have to really be disciplined all game long and can't make costly mistakes."
Under Ryan, defense has always been a point of emphasis for the Badgers.
"It's a unique defense," said Beilein. "There's no ball-screen hedge, it's a soft hedge where they're going to take away your three-point game. Some people will do it through pressure. They'll do it by just never coming off your three-point shooters."
Not only is their defensive style distinctive, but the Badgers play a controlled game, ranking first in the country in fewest turnovers (8.2) and fewest fouls (14.9) committed.
"Wisconsin is definitely one of those teams that's going to be physical all game long. And they're going to do it in ways without fouling," said Morgan. "They're going to make it hard for you to get to the rim. We have to be prepared to be just as physical and just as clean with it."
By limiting Michigan's offensive opportunities, Wisconsin has recently proved a tough opponent for the Wolverines, who are 90-66 overall record against the Badgers; but they have dropped 11 straight in Madison. The Wolverines have won just one game at The Kohl Center, a 51-36 victory on Feb. 27, 1999.
Many of the Wolverines' most-recent encounters with the Badgers have been hard-fought contests which ended in heartbreaking fashion.
In 2011, against Wisconsin at the Crisler Center, Josh Gasser banked in a three-point shot at the final buzzer to defeat Michigan, 53-52. Two years later in Madison, Wisconsin's Ben Brust sank a half-court Hail Mary to tie the game 60-60 and send the match into overtime, where the Badgers once again emerged victorious, 65-62.
In order to avoid another painful loss, the Wolverines have to control their game and value the basketball.
"You're not going to get second chances," said Beilein. "Their defensive rebounding percentage is really good. Last year at their place, we did force some turnovers.
That was rare. But, you have to value it (possession). I remember our game here that we lost on a bank shot at the buzzer (in 2011). We had three or four possessions in the first half that we threw the ball away. And you look back on it, and you say, 'that was the game.' Not the bank shot. That was the game. Now at the same time, we're going to run to the rim, we're going to lob to the rim; we're going to do some things that you have to do to score. (But) you have to make some 50-50 plays from time to time."
Michigan's close losses earlier in the season have given the team a sense of how important it is to make the best play on every possession.
"I think sometimes it hits you right in the face when you lose a game, and then you watch the video the next day," said Beilein. "You look at all these simple plays that we've been training or you (make a play) you know better than -- even if you weren't training in that area -- that ends up being a part of the close loss."
Additionally, the Wolverines have been studying game film, learning how to score against Wisconsin's defense.
"In practice we've been working on the kind of opportunities and plays that are going to be available against Wisconsin," said Stauskas.
"They've seen a lot (of film) the last couple days, because we've seen the Wisconsin game from the last two years, and (Trey Burke's) ability to score against them and where he got his shots," said Beilein.
"Derrick [Walton Jr.] spent 45 minutes with (assistant coach) LaVall Jordan today just watching film -- whether it's NBA film, whether it's film of Tim (Hardaway Jr.) play against them -- just educating him," Beilein added. "And you can see; there's this slow effect right now that he's learning more and more every day."
Yet what makes Wisconsin a particularly difficult challenge this season is not only their strong defense but their improved offense.
"This is their best shooting team overall. They have five guys who can shoot it, five guys who are posting up, five guys who play defense, five guys that pass it," said Beilein.
The Badgers have four players averaging double digits: Sam Dekker (14), Frank Kaminsky (13.5), Ben Brust (13.1), and Traevon Jackson (11.4). They also rank in the top 30 teams nationally in three-point field goals per game (8.4)
"They're playing at a much higher tempo," added Beilein. "I would say they're up 10 possessions a game from the way they've played before. They're going to score baskets at a higher clip than they ever have this year."
Combined with the discipline and defense that has marked Ryan's Badgers, Wisconsin's offense has helped lead it to its best start in program history, 16-0. On Tuesday (Jan. 14), the Badgers suffered their first loss of the season -- 75-72 at Indiana -- and now sit at 16-1.
"They're very sound defensively and offensively," said Stauskas. "We've got to play pretty much a perfect game to win."