MADISON — Thirty minutes after Michigan’s first loss of the season, John Beilein was asked about the Kohl Center. He started to give a stock answer, complimenting the crowd, the venue and so on. Then he stopped himself.
“People don’t lose here because it’s the Kohl Center,” Beilein said. “They lose here because of the style of play that Wisconsin plays. They don’t beat themselves, and they’re just tough to play. There’s so many good places in the Big Ten and this isn’t one we say, ‘Oh, we don’t wanna go to the Kohl Center.’ We say, ‘We don’t want to play Wisconsin, cause they’re so good.’ ”
This year, it’s unclear just how good the Badgers are. They sit at 12-6 after boosting their resume by handing the Wolverines their first loss of the season on Saturday, 64-54. They are likely on track to make the NCAA Tournament but still sit a tier below the Big Ten’s best.
What is clear is this: Wisconsin forced Michigan to play on its terms Saturday.
Each team had 64 possessions. They were slow, monotonous and ended in frustration more often than not. That’s Wisconsin basketball.
The Wolverines didn’t make a 3-pointer until late in the first half. By the time the game was over, they had made just 5-of-18. When they tried to get inside, they were met by a wall in the form of Nate Reuvers. When they tried to run the floor, they turned it over. When they tried to play in the half-court, they turned it over still, finishing with 16.
And Michigan, a team whose calling card has been that five different people can be its offensive lodestar, had no offense at all.
Redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews, the Wolverines’ most comfortable midrange shooter, scored all of five points when the Badgers spent the game daring Michigan to take midrange shots. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole, who managed to carry the offense in the first half, found himself in foul trouble and scored just three points in the second after Wisconsin switched up its coverage. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, a day after being asked about top-ranked Duke and declaring, “We feel like we’re definitely better than them,” was held scoreless.
The locker room, boisterous and loud with the fight song after each win, fell quiet when Beilein walked in.
“I didn’t realize it, we always sing the fight song after every win,” Beilein said. “It’s the first time the guys have never sang the fight song.”
A loss after 17 straight wins is as inevitable as it is painful. Any loss is a learning experience, but this one was a harsh reminder that Michigan still has bumps to smooth over — its offense being exhibit A.
“Tomorrow’s film session will dig in for our guys,” Beilein said. “It wasn’t exactly easy when you're trying to get your guys to run because you're mad at them after they just beat Northwestern by 20 points. … We have a lot of weaknesses. And we gotta shore them up.”
Other than junior center Jon Teske, who finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting and turned it over just once, it’s hard to pinpoint anyone who played particularly well on the offensive end throughout. Those games do happen, and for the Wolverines, they have been few and far between. That won’t change today though.
“We try to make it our team against their team,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard. “Our team defense has to be better than their team offense.”
Just before that, he had been asked what the Badgers’ defensive priorities were going into the game.
“Don’t let Michigan score,” he said.
“Don’t let (Zavier) Simpson score. Don’t let Teske score. Don’t let Brazdeikis score. Don’t let Poole score. Don’t let (Isaiah) Livers score. Don’t let Matthews score. Don’t let (Austin) Davis score. Don’t let (Eli) Brooks score.”