ANN ARBOR — For the second time in three weeks, No. 7 Michigan (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (17-6, 9-3 Big Ten) are squaring off. However, unlike the teams’ first meeting, Wisconsin enters this one riding a wave of momentum. The Badgers are currently riding a six-game winning streak, one that began when a then-unranked Wisconsin team upset No. 2 Michigan 64-54 inside the Kohl Center on January 19. In the three weeks since Wisconsin is unbeaten, and Michigan is 4-2, albeit not dominating in every win.
“Wisconsin right now is playing as good as anyone in the country, they can beat anybody in the country. You can quote me on that,” said Wolverines head coach John Beilein Friday afternoon. “The names are different, but it’s the exact same team that was winning championships over and over again. We are gonna have to play like we did in those Villanova, North Carolina games to get this win, and that’s our plan.”
That task may be easier said than done for Michigan. Since those early season offensive explosions against the best teams in the country, Michigan has found itself struggling to find a rhythm while trying to score points. After a flat loss at Iowa, the Wolverines seemed to get back into a groove against Rutgers, the biggest difference maker for Saturday’s Top 20 clash will likely be freshman Ignas Brazdeikis. Iggy was held scoreless against Wisconsin for the first (and so far only) time in his career. Fellow freshman Brandon Johns spoke about his teammate’s reaction to being shut out at the Kohl Center.
“Someone like Iggy, he takes it real personal,” said Johns. “He is really focused on this game, he is really gonna come back and retaliate for it, but he is a really competitive person so he is really gonna try and do better.”
Beilein also spoke on Brazdeikis’ donut in the points column of the stat sheet last time out vs Wisconsin. He summed it up and cited the advice he gave his dynamite freshman forward after that game.
“You’re just gonna have those days. You’re playing against Wisconsin, you’re not gonna get that many easy shots. You can’t give in and try to do too much, at the same time, when you do have an open shot, you can’t pass that up.”
Since being held scoreless against the Badgers, Brazdeikis has averaged 18.2 points per game, including a 23 point outing in Tuesday’s win over Rutgers. As for Brazdeikis and Johns, as well as other freshmen Colin Castleton, David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez, the loss at the Kohl Center was the first of their college careers, which took some getting used to after Michigan’s 17-0 start.
“That was my first college loss, I got to experience what it felt like in the locker room, during the game, after the game, it wasn’t great,” Johns said regarding losing as a Wolverine for the first time. “I kinda know how it feels now, and you really don’t want that feeling, so it’s something we strive for in practice, be solid and come out with wins.”
Beilein also reflected back upon the Wisconsin loss, it was a feeling the coach was more familiar with than his freshman, but something still felt different about losing for the first time since Michigan lost in the national championship game last spring.
“It was a very different experience. I forgot how it felt, it hurts badly” Beilein said Friday.
Earlier in the week, Beilein cited Wisconsin as one of the models of consistency in the Big Ten he wants Michigan to become. The coach heaped plenty of praise on Greg Gard’s team as he readied his for its final practice before facing the Badgers in what will likely be a pivotal game if Michigan is to challenge for the Big Ten championship.
“Wisconsin is just such a good program, you can’t look at it any other way, are they winning or are they losing. I think in 2014, we beat them there, Stauskus hit a big shot, then they came back and got us here, because (Frank) Kaminsky was incredible, and so they’re just good. I don’t look at it any other way, we are gonna have to really play well.”
Wisconsin has been the one Big Ten foe that has consistently gotten the better of Beilein in his dozen years at Michigan, and he alluded to the fact that under former Badgers coach Bo Ryan and current coach Greg Gard, the Badgers seem to outsmart Michigan in the cerebral parts of the game.
“When I get the most upset after games, it’s when the other team played smarter than us. That really gets me, because that reflects on the coaching staff that we didn’t teach it well enough.” “Wisconsin in many of their many many wins, has played smarter than us, and they are really good and we have to play just as smart, or smarter than them in this game to win because they just don’t make mistakes and they play winning basketball.”
For Michigan, a win Saturday could go a long way in asserting the Wolverines dream of winning the Big Ten, a loss could be a big blow to those hopes. Regardless of the final score, Saturday afternoon should provide us another chess match between two of the Big Ten’s best.
Michigan and Wisconsin tip off at Noon on Saturday inside Crisler Center before a sold out crowd. The game will be televised by FOX with Gus Johnson and Jim Jackson at the announce table. Be sure to follow @WolverineLounge and @ByJaySarkar on Twitter for in-game and post game coverage.