Wisconsin coach Greg Gard had five days to prepare his side for a Michigan team lucky to be stumbling into the Kohl Center with a 2-4 Big Ten record. In the middle of conference basketball season, that length of time is almost an eternity. But five days is especially excessive considering the discipline of the Badgers’ roster and the porousness of the Wolverines’ defense coming into the game.
But at the end of the first half Tuesday, Wisconsin had just 26 points on the scoreboard.
The Badgers didn’t have any offensive plays worthy of making the SportsCenter highlight reel for later that night.
And the students, who returned to the Kohl Center for the first time after their winter break, were planted in their seats at halftime, too bored to jump around after a forgettable 20 minutes of basketball.
In that half, and for the first time in Big Ten play, Michigan’s defense showed sustained signs of life.
Sophomore forward Mortiz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson, who were both exposed as the soft underbelly of the Wolverine defense against the likes of Maryland and Illinois, had firmed up.
Wilson established his physical presence on the first play, blocking Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ at the hoop, and contained forward Nigel Hayes to 2-for-8 shooting. Wagner had just as much success with his defensive assignment and prevented Happ from finding any rhythm down low.
If the physicality and aggression the pair had shown could have been matched for another 20 minutes, Michigan likely would have left Madison reborn with a signature win and realistic hopes of finishing in the top half of the Big Ten.
But in the second half, the Wolverines turned the aggression dial all the way to 11. That proved to be a costly mistake.
Within a span of three minutes, Wilson picked up three fouls. Forty-three seconds after that, Wagner picked up his third foul. And with 8:16 to go, Wagner was called for his fourth.
The team that came into Tuesday’s contest committing the fewest fouls in the country had two of its starters a whistle away from disqualification at the game’s most crucial stretch.
While the Wolverines left the Kohl Center feeling more confident in their defense than they have been in recent weeks, questions still remain on where Michigan will move forward defensively.
“Having us in foul trouble obviously doesn’t help us,” Wagner said. “So, we’ve got to find a way to be physical without fouling, especially in the second half. I think that four-minute battle where we just gave up too many easy foul calls to the post and rebounds.”
Tuesday night was an overcorrection from the issues the Wolverines suffered on defense in their past few Big Ten games. In their defensive calamity against Illinois, Wilson and Wagner barely moved while defending at times. They let guards heading for the basket blow right past them, and set themselves too early for charges or too far from the hoop to grab rebounds.
The two forwards now know where the two ends of the aggression spectrum are, and where they need to be defensively should be clearer now.
“Our maturity level has to grow (so) that we know what is a foul and what (is) not,” Wagner said. “(We need to) practice harder to be able to play defense without fouling. It’s on us to change that.”
But other defensive issues still persist, especially with the Wolverines’ options off the bench.
Freshman center Jon Teske played his first important Big Ten minutes, much to the delight of many Michigan fans yearning for an appearance from him. But in the three minutes he spent on the court in the first half, Teske showed exactly why he doesn’t have a larger role at the moment.
Though his seven-foot frame is unique and not offered by Wagner or senior forward Mark Donnal, Teske doesn’t have the fundamentals to be an imposing option down low yet. The freshman gave up an offensive rebound and an easy layup while on the court, and was quickly replaced after those lapses.
But even more important at the moment, Teske doesn’t have what makes Wagner and Donnal more valuable for the Wolverines offensively — a 3-point shot.
Redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson, who was as important for Michigan as he’s ever been offensively on Tuesday, still isn’t coming off the bench with the same level of physicality as his teammates. At a point in the second half against the Badgers, Michigan coach John Beilein grabbed his arm muscle as Robinson passed by the bench after allowing a basket, signaling to the redshirt junior that using his own could have prevented the score.
The Wolverines will feel some relief knowing the ranges in which they have to defend physically. Now, Michigan has to find the defensive balance for a full 40 minutes to reach the potential it showed against the Badgers.