ANN ARBOR, MICH. — No. 2 Michigan is off to the best start in school history at 17-0. The question now is how long the streak will go. The Wolverines are seeking their second win at Wisconsin in as many years when Michigan (17-0, 6-0) takes on Wisconsin (11-6, 3-3) Saturday in Madison. The Wolverines are seeking their fourth straight win over Wisconsin dating back to the 2016-17 season.
“It’s not as much as the venue, it’s the style of play at that venue.” John Beilein said regarding Wisconsin’s strong home court advantage at the Kohl Center in Madison. “How they generally just frustrate you and continue to make the right play. They have a great appreciation of how the game should be played by their fans. They are encouraging that loose ball by somebody out diving our guys on the floor. It just feeds the monster there that is really good, hard-nosed basketball.
“That’s the kind of games I look forward to.” said freshman Ignas Brazdeikis when asked about playing in one of the Big Ten’s signature venues as a road team. “I am just excited to play against a crowd like that, play against a team like that… I love that environment, I love that feel. There’s something about road games that just get me going.”
Saturday is a homecoming game for Michigan sophomore guard Jordan Poole, a native of Milwaukee. Poole scored just eight points in 13 minutes on the floor in Michigan’s 83-72 win over Wisconsin last season, spelling Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman off the bench. Poole has shown some extra enthusiasm this week in practice according to his teammates knowing he will start Saturday’s game in front of some friends and family.
“Always. It’s a homecoming game for him. He actually gets to choose the color of our tights and sleeves. You know Jordan, that is a big thing for him,” joked sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who is also Poole’s roommate.
“He’s one of the most energetic, tough guys I’ve played with.” Brazdeikis said regarding Poole.
“He’s got that swagger but he’s really good at keeping his emotions, he’ll definitely be ready but I don’t expect him to go crazy, he knows what he is doing.”
With Duke’s loss to Syracuse on Tuesday, Michigan has a chance to jump to the top of the polls with a win over the Badgers. The Wolverines aren’t sweating a chance at being ranked the number one team in the country with a win. Like they have for much of this season, they are taking their ranking, and each game in stride.
“It’s obviously just another game, but it’s definitely on my mind, being number one. I always want to be number one, all the time, no matter what I do, so getting that opportunity and that respect would be huge for us” Brazdeikis replied. “But at the end of the day, we don’t care what other people think, it’s about how we feel about ourselves.”
Wisconsin finds itself in a very un-Wisconsin like swoon. The Badgers have lost four of their last five, and six of their last eight going back to a non-conference loss at Marquette on December 8th. Perhaps the most surprising part is not that Wisconsin has lost two straight at the Kohl Center, but that it scored 14 points in the first half against Minnesota and lost to Purdue despite a 31 point outing from Ethan Happ. Per KenPom, Wisconsin ranks 17th overall, 7th on offense, and 60th defensively.
“Some people have told me they like to play people after a loss. I like to play people after a win, but look at who they’ve lost to.” said Beilein, pointing out the Badgers losses against quality opponents in Purdue and at Maryland.
The Badgers are led by Happ, who despite claims he has been in Madison longer than Barry Alvarez, is in his redshirt senior season. The 6’10 center is shooting 57% from the field and averaging a career-best 19.1 points per game. Happ represents the most talented individual matchup Jon Teske has faced in quite some time.
“They have an All-American center by the way who is absolutely terrific and maybe a Wooden Award type of winner when it’s all said and done.” Beilein praised Happ. “It seems like we’ve been guarding Happ for 16 years, not five years, and he is a tough one.”
“Over here we have high praise for him,” said Livers, who may get a chance to match up with Happ in the game. “He can dribble the ball at 6’10 and guard bigger defenders with being versatile. I can’t wait.” Livers also said he has never faced a player like Happ. The sophomore forward missed last year’s game in Madison while out with an ankle injury.
Wisconsin’s other senior starter is Khalil Iverson, who has struggled to find his footing offensively this year. After averaging 8.5 points per game in his first season as a starter, Iverson’s per game total is nearly half of what it was at 4.6 PPG 17 games in. Whether it be Matthews or Poole that draws Iverson, it will take a scoring effort unseen from him this year to give the Badgers some offensive punch in their quest to upset Michigan.
What will be an entertaining matchup is Wisco’s sophomore point guard Brad Davison, who seems to be coming for the Aaron Craft memorial trophy of player opposing fan bases love to loathe, against Zavier Simpson. Davison and fellow guard D’Mitrik Trice (younger brother of former MSU guard Travis Trice and noted good dog owner) will try and assist Happ in putting up points against Michigan’s vaunted defense.
There are a few ways Saturday’s game could go, choose your own adventure as you see fit:
- The Michigan we saw on Sunday against Northwestern travels well to the Kohl Center and Wisconsin continues to find itself struggling against conference opponents. The Wolverines offense clicks and Michigan takes home a win at the Kohl Center for the second year in a row, beats Wisconsin for the fourth time in a row, and improves to 18-0
- Michigan finds itself struggling with turnovers in the first half on the road (a somewhat common theme in the small sample size Big Ten road play has provided) and the Badgers, knowing they are backed into a corner with another loss in the column, rally to upset Michigan and get themselves back on their feet entering the second half of the season.
- Nuclear Option: Khalil Iverson hits a buzzer beater like Ben Brust did to force overtime six years ago and Wisconsin upsets Michigan in stunning fashion.
Saturday’s game will be a good test for Michigan as the Wolverines enter a stretch on paper that looks challenging. Trips to the Kohl Center, Assembly Hall and Carver-Hawkeye Arena sandwiching games against Minnesota and Ohio State may force Michigan to face some adversity it hasn’t had to yet this season. If the results of the past week are any indication of how unpredictable Big Ten Basketball will be this winter, the only thing you need to know for Saturday is to grab your popcorn and strap in.
“We’re gonna find out (how good Michigan can be,) both Northwestern and Villanova were extremely hostile environments,” Beilein said of Michigan’s upcoming road tests. “Seems like it was a year ago that we went there. We’re gonna find out real quick how united we can be and stay together, leads can evaporate really quick in Madison, or you can get out of it very quickly in Madison and to get back into it, is really hard…. We got 14 games, six home, eight away, we better be good on the road or else you can’t compete for a championship.”
In the Wolverines quest for a title, the Badgers represent a sizable roadblock, but one that Michigan has the ability to clear so long as it comes out strong on both sides of the floor.
Michigan and Wisconsin tip off Saturday at Noon in Madison. The game will be televised by ESPN with Jason Benetti & Dan Dakich at the announce table. Follow @WolverineLounge and @ByJaySarkar on Twitter for in-game updates, post-game coverage and more.