Two seems to be Michigan’s unlucky number heading into its matchup with Wisconsin.
Michigan coach John Beilein has beaten the Badgers just twice in 18 attempts as a head coach, and the Wolverines have yet to put together a winning streak of more than two games so far in Big Ten play this season.
Michigan will have a chance to break both of those trends Thursday when Wisconsin (10-2 Big Ten, 21-4 overall) pays a visit to Crisler Center for the Wolverines’ penultimate home game of the season.
Compared to last month’s contest in Madison — a 68-64 Badger victory — many factors have shifted to give Michigan (6-6, 16-9) a better feeling heading into the return game.
The Wolverines are coming off their best defensive performance of the conference season, holding Indiana to 63 points and 21 percent shooting from three on its home court.
Leading that effort was Michigan’s frontcourt duo, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner. The pair shut down Hoosier center Thomas Bryant and forced Indiana to make plays on the perimeter rather than work the ball inside-out.
The Badgers play a similar style of working through forward Ethan Happ, who leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. Though Wilson had success stopping the forward in the first half of the game in Madison, he quickly picked up three fouls shortly after halftime while defending Happ’s frontcourt partner — forward Nigel Hayes — and had to watch from the bench as Happ’s passing skills powered Wisconsin on a decisive 15-0 run.
Wilson and Wagner’s foul trouble in that matchup paralyzed the Wolverines down the stretch. The Badgers were in the bonus for a majority of the second half, and Michigan lost its physical edge and height advantage with its starting frontcourt out of the game.
“Wisconsin’s really good at drawing fouls,” Beilein said. “(We) have to learn to play post defense aggressive. I’m not talking about not fouling; I’m talking about bad fouls. They’ve got to be good fouls in the post because if you’re going to be physical, you’re going to be called for something.”
The Wolverines’ defense showed they were capable of holding Happ and Hayes below their respective scoring averages, especially when they focused on creating turnovers or forcing difficult shots. At the Kohl Center, Happ went 5-for-13 from the field and committed three turnovers while Hayes shot 4-for-11 from the floor and 1-for-4 from behind the arc.
If Wilson and Wagner can cut out the bad fouls that plagued them in Madison, Michigan will likely have the edge in the post.
“We got to have a lot of ideas in our head, and hopefully we’re good at all of them and not average,” Beilein said on trying to contain Happ and Hayes. “Trying to put it all together, it’s going to be a challenge because they’re a very smart team. We’re not going to surprise them, but hopefully we can create some turnovers or create some tough twos for them to make as well.”
Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig, who played a central role in the Badgers’ win in January, has been deemed questionable for Thursday’s game. Koenig has been held out of practice for the past two days, and is listed as day-to-day with a leg injury.
The senior was a non-factor for 35 minutes, but single-handedly led Wisconsin’s comeback in the final five minutes.
Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. took responsibility for Koenig’s run and now revels in the chance to prove his defensive worth over the fellow senior point guard.
“If you’re a good player and you make one shot, that’s all the difference,” Walton said. “Kudos for him for not being frustrated for 35 minutes and doing what his team needed him to do and close out the game. I take a personal challenge on playing a full 40 minutes of playing great defense on him.”
Michigan will be familiar with the matchups it will face against the Badgers on Thursday. Where the Wolverines fall short, though, is knowing how to handle their recent success.
Following previous two-game stretches of victories this season — in New York at the 2K Classic and in conference play against Illinois and Indiana — Michigan has gone on to drop the following game of each string.
Now, with wins over Michigan State and at Indiana, Michigan faces the same challenge to bottle its momentum and extend its winning streak.
“It’s normal as a human when you have some success, you relish in it and get comfortable,” Walton said. “Only the great individual teams and coaches push you to be better. I think that falls on the players and the leadership.”
Added Beilein: “With most people, good is the enemy of great. As soon as you do some things good, you start to slack off a little bit. That’s our job as coaches to make sure they see that.”
If the Wolverines want to reach their goals and land comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field, they can’t let an opportunity like Thursday night pass them by.
In Madison, Michigan proved it has the matchups and the talent to beat the Badgers. Now, the Wolverines have to show they have developed the mental edge to get over the hump and beat the streaks that will continue to haunt them if they don’t.