Returning home to the Kohl Center was what Wisconsin needed in order to shake off an uncharacteristically poor performance in the loss to Purdue. After delivering a dominant performance to take care of business against Ohio State Thursday, the Badgers now turn their attention to Michigan. Like Wisconsin in its win over Ohio State, Michigan shot 54 percent and 50 percent from 3-point range to earn a 91-85 home victory over Nebraska to snap a two game losing streak. That shooting performance marked the Wolverines third straight game shooting above 50 percent from the field and their second straight game of connecting on at least 50 percent of their 3-point attempts.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten) as they prepare to play Michigan (12-6, 2-3).
LAY UP: THE PLAY OF WISCONSIN’S FRONTCOURT ON DEFENSE
Part of the reason Wisconsin’s defense has been so steady this season has been due to the strong defense of the Badgers’ frontcourt, doing well of either contesting or altering shots or making sure they don’t consistently allow the opposition to settle for a high percentage shot around the rim.
With Big Ten play starting, it was expected that the frontcourt would be challenged more, which they have been. At the same time Wisconsin has continued to do well in limiting opportunities in allowing an average of 24.5 points in the paint over Big Ten play, a number that does include a season-high 38 points to Indiana.
Michigan’s frontcourt is capable of having success against the interior of Wisconsin’s defense, as the Wolverines have averaged 31.6 points in the paint over the last five games. Michigan’s success down low has played a role in the Wolverines shooting 52.2 percent from the field over their last three games and shooting 49.1 percent overall in conference play. Moritz Wagner (12.2 points per game) has shot 62.3 percent and D.J. Wilson (10.8 points per game) has shot 54.8 percent from the field over conference play.
Ethan Happ has shown how strong of a defender he is on the block, leading the team with 32 steals, but Vitto Brown will need to be strong when he defends Wilson, making sure that he isn’t easily backed down. Brown struggled against Purdue in the paint, picking up four fouls, so the senior can’t afford to have a similar performance. One area where Brown has excelled as of late is his ability to alter shots, as six of Brown’s 10 blocks have come over the last six games.
If Happ and Brown can limit Wilson and Wagner, they will frustrate two players who have averaged 16.6 and 14 points a game, respectively, over Big Ten play. Although Zak Irvin leads the team in scoring (14.2 points per game) those two have helped create spacing and open shots, a reason why Michigan ranks in the top five in both field goal percentage and 3-point percentage in conference play. It is important that Wisconsin finds a way to slow Wagner and Wilson down to prevent Michigan from establishing a balance on offense.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: CAN WISCONSIN FORCE MICHIGAN INTO MISTAKES?
Michigan (plus-3.4) and Wisconsin (plus-2.2) rank one and two in turnover margin in the Big Ten, not to mention the Wolverines are the only team in the Big Ten to average single digits in turnovers at 9.1 a game. Committing 10 turnovers against Nebraska snapped an eight game streak of committing nine or fewer turnovers.
Simply put Michigan won’t beat themselves on offense, but Wisconsin has consistently shown that they are capable of forcing a team into a mistake and create extra offensive possessions. Only Creighton (seven turnovers) has committed single digit turnovers against the Badgers this season.
Overall Wisconsin is forcing an average of 13.3 turnovers a game but has bumped that number up to 14.5 per game in conference play. At the same time Michigan has become more difficult to force a turnover against in Big Ten play, leading the conference with eight turnovers a game.
Wisconsin’s defensive pressure has made the Badgers one of the top conference teams in steals, as its 7.3 per game is second in the league to Nebraska’s 7.4 per game. More impressive, over the last eight games, Wisconsin has cranked up the defensive pressure registering at least eight steals. If Wisconsin can keep that up against Michigan, which teams average 3.9 steals against, Wisconsin has the chance to generate some offense.
Playing aggressive defense can lead to drawing fouls, but the Badgers have done well of playing smart defense without fouling (15.3 fouls per game). That will be important against Michigan with the Wolverines leading the conference in free throw percentage at 79.5 percent.
The one person UW might be able to exploit is Irvin, who leads the team with 2.2 turnovers a contest and has 2.8 miscues per Big Ten game. A likely match-up with Irvin is Nigel Hayes, who is third on the team with 16 steals. With UW averaging 17 points off turnovers, frustrating Irvin could help the Badgers get close to that mark.
3-POINTER: WORKING FOR THE BEST SHOT ON OFFENSE
Wisconsin is coming off one of its best offensive performances this season after shooting 49.3 percent (36-for-73) from the field against Ohio State. That could mean bad news for a Michigan defense that ranks last in both field goal percentage defense (46.9 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (43.1 percent) in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin’s spacing was the best it has been all season against Ohio State, allowing the Badgers to get open looks from 3-point range (and go 12-for-12 from distance) and steadily build a lead. Wisconsin has shot over 50 percent twice from distance over the last three games, and Michigan has allowed teams to shoot 55.3 percent from the perimeter over five Big Ten games, making it important Wisconsin stays patient in its offense.
In order to continue creating the spacing Wisconsin needs, the Badgers will need to touch the post. Wisconsin has averaged 33.5 points per game in the paint over Big Ten play, compared to the 34 points Michigan has allowed during conference play. In particular Happ could use tonight’s game to get his shot back on track considering teams have shot 53.4 percent from the field over conference play against the Wolverines.
Happ has averaged 11.5 points over the last two games but has shot an average of 38.4 percent (10-for-26) from the field, down considerably down from the 62.3 percent he’s shooting on the season. If Happ can use one of his post moves, he should be able to get a clean shot off without it being contested against a team averaging 2.7 blocks per game.
Wisconsin survived the game against Ohio State without the productivity that Happ provides from a scoring perspective, although he remained active and had four of his 11 rebounds come on the offensive glass. UW finished with a season-high 21 offensive rebounds against Ohio State, their second 20 offensive rebound effort this season. Michigan has allowed an average of 10.2 offensive rebounds over conference play, but Wisconsin has the ability to wear the Wolverines’ defense down by staying active on the glass and extending offensive possessions.