'This is a big game': Wolverines get second shot at red-hot Badgers
Ann Arbor — When Wisconsin and Michigan crossed paths last month, the outcome left coach John Beilein with a funny feeling.
Or an unfamiliar one that comes when a team opens the season with 17 straight wins and suffers its first defeat in 292 days.
“It was really a very different experience,” Beilein said Friday of the 64-54 loss on Jan. 19 at the Kohl Center. “I've experienced (losses) many hundred times before, but I just forgot how it felt and it hurt badly.”
No. 7 Michigan will look to repay the favor and exact some revenge in Saturday’s rematch against No. 19 Wisconsin at Crisler Center.
To do so, the Wolverines (20-2, 10-2 Big Ten) will have to find a way to cool off one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten.
“This is a big game. Wisconsin right now is playing as good as anybody in the country,” Beilein said. “They could beat anybody in the country. You can quote me on that. They can beat anybody, home or away, in the country right now. It looks like the Wisconsin teams — the names are different but it's the exact same teams that were winning (Big Ten) championships over and over again.
“They really are good and we're going to have to play really well. We'll have to play like we did in those Villanova, North Carolina games to get this win, and that's our plan.”
Since handing the Wolverines their first defeat of the season, the Badgers (17-6, 9-3) have won six straight with a similar formula that relies on slowing the game down, a frustrating defense and a heavy dose of do-it-all big man Ethan Happ.
Over the six-game stretch, Happ has recorded three double-doubles and a triple-double — including his 26-point, 10-rebound and seven-assist outing against Michigan — and Wisconsin has held opponents to 53.8 points on 35.6 percent shooting to pull into the thick of the Big Ten race.
Zoom out and the season stats show Michigan and Wisconsin are mirror images of one another. Both teams rank among the nation’s best at taking care of the ball (Wisconsin is No. 2 in fewest turnovers with 215; Michigan is No. 3 with 216), stifling opposing offenses (Michigan is No. 2 in scoring defense at 57.3 points; Wisconsin is No. 8 at 61 points) and holding teams to low shooting percentages (Wisconsin is No. 16 at 39.3 percent; Michigan is No. 18 at 39.6 percent).
The similar script doesn't stop there. The Badgers also average 71.4 points per game, hold teams to 30.9-percent shooting from 3-point range and boast a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Wolverines average 71.1 points per game, hold teams to 30.3-percent shooting on 3-pointers and have a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We’re doing the same thing,” Beilein said. “It's called winning basketball. You don't turn it over, you make your foul shots, you don't foul people, you don't give up 3s. It's winning basketball how they see it and how we see it.”
Yet, Beilein also sees the second meeting being just as difficult as the first, which saw the Wolverines tie a season high with 16 turnovers, fall into a trap of taking tough 2-pointers and crumble in the final minute.
This time, though, Beilein said it’s imperative to play “just as smart or smarter” against Wisconsin.
"You have to value possessions offensively and defensively,” Beilein said. “It's going to be a lower possession game. They're not going to turn it over so you're not going to get those five or six possessions that you normally would get.
“You have to go into these games knowing you don't have to play perfect, but you've got to value possessions … They just don't make many mistakes, so you can't make as many mistakes.”
That goes for freshman forward and leading scorer Ignas Brazdeikis, who made the mistake of shying away from shooting after missing a couple open 3-pointers against the Badgers.
He was held scoreless in 23 minutes and attempted only five shots, marking the first time all season he failed to score and the only time in the last 12 games he didn’t reach double figures.
"Someone like Iggy, he takes it real personal,” freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. said. “He's obviously really focused on his game. He's going to come back and retaliate.”
Johns added the Badgers have been stuck in the back of the Wolverines’ minds over the last three weeks, and everyone, not just Brazdeikis, has something to prove.
Payback is sweet. But avenging a loss in a top-20 matchup with serious Big Ten title implications? That's an even better feeling.
“We're ready to play them and we're going to be more prepared,” Johns said. “It's a game that we've really been looking forward to. We hope to finish business and get it done.”
Wisconsin at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 7 Michigan 21-2, 10-2 Big Ten; No. 19 Wisconsin 17-6, 9-3
Outlook: Ethan Happ leads Wisconsin in scoring (18.3 points), rebounding (10.4) and assists (5.1) and is shooting 55.2 percent from the field. … The Badgers are 5-1 in Big Ten road games and rank third nationally in fewest turnovers per game (9.3). … Michigan has won 20 straight at Crisler Center but has only won three of the last 10 meetings between the teams in Ann Arbor.