Madison, Wis. — Michigan coach John Beilein was befuddled.
Entering Tuesday night’s game at No. 17 Wisconsin, the Wolverines averaged the fewest personal fouls in the nation at 14.2 per game.
After drawing four first-half fouls, the foul total quickly escalated as Michigan was whistled 17 times in the second half in a 68-64 loss at Kohl Center.
The 21 fouls tied a season-high for Michigan (12-7, 2-4 Big Ten) set against Howard in the season opener and Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“It's all confusing. Confusing,” Beilein said. “We lead the country in not fouling so it was confusing what happened. We'll just let it go.”
Seven of the 17 second-half fouls came within the first 5½ minutes. It started with Derrick Walton Jr. and Moritz Wagner each picking up a foul following a turnover roughly a minute into the half.
Shortly after, Michigan picked up five more within a two-minute span as Zak Irvin, Xavier Simpson, D.J. Wilson, Wagner and Walton all drew a whistle to put Wisconsin in the bonus with 14:25 to play.
“They made an effort to call the hand check more in the second half, especially at the beginning of the second half,” Irvin said. “I mean, they were in the bonus with 14 minutes to go, so it's tough to play physical defensively when they're in the bonus with 14 minutes to go. We had to change up how we were guarding.”
Wisconsin took advantage, getting to the line seven times over the next 2½ minutes to stretch a three-point lead to seven, 38-31, with 11:59 remaining.
Michigan adjusted and didn’t commit another foul until the final 1:13 but Wisconsin went on to make 12 of its last 16 shots and shoot 8-for-12 from the free-throw line to seal its 17th straight win at home. After shooting just four free throws in the first half, Wisconsin finished 14-for-24 for the game.
"I thought it was an extremely physical game, a hard game to officiate,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “You can tell by shooting percentages in the first half, that both of us were below one point per possession. There was a lot of bumping and grinding going on in the paint and beyond. You just have to be able to play through it. I think it's always goal of ours to try and get the opposition in foul trouble and it definitely helped us.”
Foul trouble kept Wilson and Wagner on the bench for stretches in the second half before they fouled out in the final minute. Walton also fouled out and joined the frontcourt duo with 14 seconds left, doubling Michigan’s season total over the first 18 games (Duncan Robinson fouled out against Illinois, Wilson against Virginia Tech and Irvin against South Carolina).
“Having us in foul trouble obviously doesn't help us, so we have to find a way to be physical without fouling, especially in the second half,” Wagner said. “I think there was a four-minute battle where we just gave up too many easy foul calls in the post and rebounds and stuff like that.
“I mean it's just a thing that we got to grow from and surely we're going to grow. We know what is a foul and what’s not. Just got to practice harder to be able to play defense without fouling. It's all on us to change that.”
Slowing Irvin’s roll
Whether it was in the paint, on the elbow or beyond the arc, Irvin was knocking down shots from all over the floor in the first 28 minutes.
But after Irvin scored six straight on a layup and back-to-back mid-range jumpers to give Michigan its largest lead, 38-30, with 12:40 to play, Wisconsin put senior forward Nigel Hayes on him when Hayes checked back into the game with 11:59 left.
Irvin struggled following the defensive switch, missing his next three shots and committing a turnover before hitting a desperation 3-pointer from atop the key with six seconds left to finish with 20 points (9-for-16 shooting).
“I was guarding one of the other guys and (Irvin) was making everything it just seemed like,” Hayes said. “Swag walk back down the court, tongue out, throwing up threes. When you give a player confidence like that, the rim gets really large, so I took it personal to try to not let him continue his roll. He was definitely keeping his team in the game and giving them the lead, so I took it upon myself to make sure I did my best to limit his looks."
Moving forward, Beilein said it’s imperative that Irvin continues to be aggressive from the opening tip rather than waiting until crunch time to get going.
“We try to get him as many opportunities as we can and he embraces that,” Beilein said. “He could lead the team in assists and shots and that's rare that we want him to shoot it and we want him to look for each other."
Following Tuesday’s defeat, Michigan has lost five straight against Wisconsin and Beilein is 2-16 for his career versus the Badgers (1-7 in Madison).
The two wins came on Jan. 8, 2012 (59-41 at Crisler Center) and Jan. 18, 2014 (77-70 at Kohl Center), and six of the losses have been by five points or less.
“Two great wins, though. Those games were great freaking wins,” Beilein said. “And there was a whole bunch of close ones…They’ve had better teams than us and they have tremendous coaches.”
…Michigan will be holding a toy drive and “Star Wars” Day for Saturday’s home game against Illinois. Fans who bring new, unwrapped toys will receive a limited edition “Star Wars” decal. All donations will benefit C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
Fans can also buy a special ticket package in advance to receive a limited edition Michigan branded “Star Wars” T-shirt and take photos with various “Star Wars” characters during pregame festivities.