On Thursday night, styles and strengths will clash.
The Wolverines welcome Wisconsin to Crisler Center in the two teams’ one and only meeting this season. While the Badgers may lack a top-25 ranking and household name, they are currently tied for third in the Big Ten — a game ahead of Michigan in the crowded race for a double-bye in next month’s conference tournament.
One of the keys to Wisconsin’s success this year has been its 3-point shooting. The Badgers rank second in the conference, behind only the Buckeyes, in 3-point field goals per game and 3-point shooting percentage. And, over its last five games, Wisconsin is shooting 39.3 percent beyond the arc.
“It’s challenging,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They spread you out. They have guys who can make 3-pointers not just from a step behind the line but like two to four steps behind the three. It’s gonna be important that we guard the 3-point line and expect long rebounds.”
Guarding the 3-point line is something the Wolverines have specialized in this season. Howard’s extensive NBA background has unsurprisingly taught him the importance of limiting opponents’ opportunities behind the arc. He’s instilled that defensive thinking into his players this season — so much so that through the first half of the season, Howard refused to send help on opposing post players for fear of leaving open looks on the perimeter.
So far it’s worked, as Michigan has allowed the 10th-fewest 3-point field goals in the county and is holding opponents to just 30.3 percent from deep.
“Our guys are able to adapt with whatever the philosophy was before to this year,” Howard said. “We have smart players who have high IQ’s. But it takes a lot of reps and a lot of practice and film in order to grasp the defensive philosophy that I have.
“Our thing is we just want to make sure we get a hand-ball contest on every shot whether its inside the arc or outside the arc.”
Wisconsin will undoubtedly test the Wolverines’ competence in this regard. The Badgers don’t have one or two prolific sharpshooters, but rather a handful of capable ones. Five Wisconsin players have hit at least 25 threes this season, meaning Michigan’s defenders will have to be on their toes at all times.
“They do a great job of sharing the basketball,” Howard said. “They’re very patient when it comes to getting into their sets and running their offense. They want the defense to make a mistake. It’s important for us to be very disciplined defensively.”
The two teams also differ greatly from a tempo perspective. While Howard has encouraged his team to push the ball offensively and play a fast-paced brand of basketball, the Badgers are quite the opposite, ranking 342nd in the country in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.
“Their pace of play stands out,” senior center Jon Teske said. “They play really slow. But they’re very efficient with what they do. They use the whole shot clock. They like to throw the ball down low and have very good bigs who are capable scorers. And if they don’t have anything they’ll throw it out to their 3-point shooters.”
In what could easily be considered a trap game for Michigan ahead of its trip to Ohio State on Sunday, expect Wisconsin to try to lull the Wolverines to sleep before striking from beyond the arc. Thursday night will be a clash of strengths and styles — a clash Michigan isn’t overlooking.
“When the ball moves, we all move,” Teske said. “We know if someone makes a mistake, the next guy will be right there to step up. We trust each other to be in the right spots so we can get that defensive rebound and get out in transition and run.
“They’re very balanced on offense. It’ll be a challenge for us, but we’ll be ready for them.”