Years of pain accompany Wolverines to Madison

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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 16, 2014

Even as his team closed out Minnesota for a much-needed win in its Big Ten opener two weeks ago, nightmarish thoughts skittered across Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein’s mind.

He thought of Wisconsin.

With the Wolverines up three in Williams Arena on Jan. 3, the Golden Gophers had a final possession to tie it. Deandre Mathieu heaved a desperation attempt from half-court, but before the ball caromed off the backboard, Beilein remembered Josh Gasser.

Three seasons ago, Gasser banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer in the Crisler Center to turn a Michigan lead into a Michigan loss. And that hasn’t been the Wolverines’s lone blemish against the Badgers over the years.

Michigan (4-0 Big Ten, 12-4 overall) has lost 12 of its last 13 games against Wisconsin, and the only win came with the divine presence of Cazzie Russell gracing Crisler in 2012. Saturday afternoon, the Wolverines travel to the Kohl Center to take on No. 3 Wisconsin. As if traveling to Madison wasn’t enough of a chore — Michigan hasn’t won there this millennium — the Badgers (3-1, 16-1) didn’t drop a game this season until Tuesday.

Needing a statement win in the Big Ten tournament last year after a sluggish conference season, Michigan got upended by Wisconsin convincingly, 68-59. And a month earlier, yet another heartbreaking 3-pointer made Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan a winner over Beilein. With just over two seconds remaining, Tim Hardaway Jr. drained a 3-pointer to give Michigan a three-point lead. Then, taking the inbounds pass on a route run like a wide receiver and dribbling inside of midcourt near the sideline, Badgers guard Ben Brust let the ball fly, and it fell right through the hoop. The Badgers would go on to win in overtime, 65-62.

Such tough luck brought Beilein’s strategy of not fouling in that situation into question. If Michigan fouled, the opponent would shoot two free throws without the opportunity to tie the game. But that’s never been Beilein’s preference. He explained himself after the same situation revealed itself against Minnesota, but with better luck.

“You want to foul sometimes, but I’m so afraid of a guy fouling as he goes and shoots a 40-footer,” Beilein said after the Minnesota game.

A different fear fuels Arizona coach Sean Miller’s strategy, one that is the opposite of Beilein’s and one that ended up working to perfection in Dec. 14’s 72-70 victory over Michigan. Up three with single-digit seconds remaining, Miller’s Wildcats fouled sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht. The Crown Point, Ind. native missed one of the free throws, and his hurried 3-point make the next trip down the floor wasn’t enough to close the gap.

Miller’s strategy is a personal one, based on his Xavier team’s loss to Ohio State in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament when a 3-pointer by Buckeye Ron Lewis tied the game in the final seconds before the Musketeers lost in overtime.

“Every coach has his philosophy and maybe the circumstances in a game can change your mind, but I lost one of the hardest games you could ever lose in the NCAA Tournament to Ohio State,” Miller said after the victory over Michigan. “I just made my mind up on that bus ride home that I’m going to lose a different way for the rest of my life.”

Michigan would be lucky if it found itself in another of those tense, final-possession games on Saturday. While the Wolverines have weathered the loss of Mitch McGary by jumping out to wins in their first four conference games, they haven’t faced a team like Wisconsin in 2014, let alone on the road.

The Badgers have opened eyes with their prolific scoring this year, led by a sophomore, a junior and a senior. Sam Dekker is the team’s leading scorer at 14 points per game, and he’s tied for the team lead in rebounds with Frank Kaminsky, who has proven to be an explosive scorer in his own right. The junior scored 43 points on 16-for-19 shooting in a November win over North Dakota. There’s also Brust. The senior is scoring 13 points per game and combing the boards as one of the country’s best rebounding guards.

Wisconsin has asserted itself with a 27-point win over Northwestern, a 25-point win over Illinois and a comeback victory over upstart Iowa before stumbling this week with a road loss to a down Indiana squad.

Michigan will look to exploit Wisconsin’s newfound vulnerability Saturday, and in doing so, start to wipe away years of painful memories.