Michigan is coming off what is perhaps its best win over the season against Ohio State on Tuesday night. Along with this, after Indiana's upset loss against Illinois on Tuesday, Michigan has moved into a tie for 1st place in the Big Ten and will be playing for a shot at the #1 ranking. Michigan's momentum, ranking, and Big Ten standing will be on the line Saturday on the road against a very dangerous Wisconsin team. This is also a big game for Wisconsin, who is only one game out of 1st place in the Big Ten and needs to secure solid wins in order to secure a strong NCAA Tournament bid. Both teams are in the midst of key stretches of their seasons and needless to say, this is a big game for both teams.
Jared Berggren is this year's standard Wisconsin big man.
The Badgers: Like every Bo Ryan team ever, this is a team that prides itself on defense. They rank #7 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Along with this, the Badgers are a team that plays very slow tempo basket, ranking 11th in the conference in possessions per game during Big Ten play. This number might even be lower if the Badgers didn't have such a solid frontcourt rebounding the basketball. The frontcourt anchors for this team are Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans. Berggren leads the team with 11.8 points per game while also grabbing 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Evans leads the team with 7.7 rebounds per game and also gets 10.8 points and 1.9 assists per game. These two compose what is one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten.
The Badgers have also been getting some good production out of high profile freshman Sam Dekker and Ben Brust. Dekker only gets 21.8 minutes per game, but he has been key in a few games this season including a 10 point game against Minnesota. Burst has not been incredibly efficient on the offensive end, but he averages a team high 33.2 minutes per game and scored 18 and 20 in his last two games. And of course, there is always the fiery Mike Bruesewitz who brings much of the energy to this team (imagine a Zack Novak type player). Bruesewitz gets 7.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game.
Out of all these players, perhaps the most interesting piece is sophomore Traevon Jackson. Jackson was forced into more playing time due to early season injuries and though he was inconsistent at the beginning of the year, he has been a key contributor recently. He had 14 points against Illinois, 11 against Indiana, 12 on the road against Ohio State, and 13 in Wisconsin's double overtime victory over Iowa. Jackson is definitely not on the level of point guards like Trey Burke, but with the pieces he has surrounding him, Wisconsin has a good lineup that can do a lot of damage.
Keys To The Game: Perhaps the most important task of this game will fall on Trey Burke's shoulders. There is no doubt that Wisconsin is going to try and slow down the pace of this game. Michigan may be able to speed it up a little, but Wisconsin is usually very effective at controlling the pace and has mastered the art of running the shot clock down to the end offensively. This doesn't mean Michigan is in major trouble, but it does mean that they need to get quality possessions and avoid turnovers. When the game is slowed down and there are fewer possessions, each possession gains more significance, which means mistakes like turnovers are more meaningful. Burke has been great at avoiding turnovers this season and it will be important to continue that in this game. It will also be important for players like Stauskas and Hardaway who can sometimes make head scratching turnovers to hold on to the ball.
Michigan must rebound the ball exceptionally well. Wisconsin's rebounding numbers may not seem incredible, but when you consider their slow pace, it becomes evident that their big men do a really good job on the boards. Hardaway and GR3 are always rebounding threats and McGary has been rebounding well lately, but doing things like boxing out will be huge. They made some rebounding mistakes in the game against Indiana and they need to avoid similar mistakes on Saturday. Overall, Michigan has the roster to compete with the Badgers and have the ability to play slow or fast paced games, which gives them an advantage against Wisconsin that teams like Indiana might not possess. Michigan will need to play well, but they have a good shot at competing and scraping out a road win against Wisconsin for the first time since 1999.
Players To Watch: The big player in this game will be Trey Burke. Not only does he need to be careful in how he tries to pace the game, but he also needs to avoid wasted possessions and turnovers. If Michigan turns over the ball or takes risky shots on a regular basis, they are going to have a lot of trouble winning. This is why it's crucial for Burke to play a good game. Another player to watch will be Mitch McGary. He had a great game on Tuesday against Ohio State and will be looking to continue that momentum on Saturday. The whole frontcourt is going to be severely tested by Wisconsin's big men, which makes it important for McGary to compete on the glass and on the defensive side. The final player to watch is Nik Stauskas. Wisconsin does a good job defending the 3 point line, which will be a challenge for Stauskas. He turned over the ball against Ohio State four times, and seems to struggle against aggressive, in-your-face defense.
Prediction: Michigan by 3