Seven games ago, anyone who believed the Michigan basketball team was going to be above .500 heading into Big Ten play was watching the wrong team.
But after the team’s win over IUPUI Saturday, that outlandish prediction became an unbelievable reality, as the Wolverines (7-6) picked up their seventh-straight victory to move above the .500 mark. A resurgence of confidence seems to have transformed the Wolverines into a completely new group of players, full of energy and passion.
But is this emotion enough to carry them through an arduous conference schedule, beginning with Wisconsin (10-2) tonight at Crisler Arena? Are the young Wolverines experienced enough to handle the mental rigors of facing Big Ten opponents?
“When you think of the Big Ten, you think of size, power, strength and experience,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “This conference exudes those attributes and players. We may not have all those things right now, but I like where we are going to be. It is going to be a long haul in the league, but we are going to get better from it, and it is going to serve us well at some point.”
The winning streak has been noteworthy, but Amaker and the Wolverines know that in order to continue their success, they must continue to buckle down and improve on all aspects of the game, especially as the talent level of the competition rises.
Their success this conference season, beginning with Wisconsin tonight, hinges on keeping players healthy, dealing with foul trouble and handling matchup problems that result from a lack of depth.
Health has already become a concern with the knee injury to junior Bernard Robinson that could force him to miss up to two weeks. Robinson practiced Monday, but remained unsure as to whether he would be able to play tonight.
“Bernard has been a catch-all for us,” Amaker said. “He has been very versatile and without his skills we suffered. We are looking at playing five freshmen out of the nine guys we play. I think in terms of (freshman Daniel Horton), Bernard has been an asset to all of our players, and Daniel has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.”
Meanwhile, a lack of depth has made health an even more important factor.
“I think (staying healthy) is vital,” Amaker said. “We are not very deep. At the beginning of the year we thought that was an asset, but it never materialized. With one or two injuries, it can really decimate your ball club. That is out of our control.”
Perimeter defense suffered against IUPUI because of no depth, and both Horton and freshman Lester Abram need to step up if they want to control Wisconsin’s guard tandem of Devin Harris and Kirk Penney.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has the Badgers playing a high level of basketball, as they begin their defense of their co-Big Ten championship.
“The biggest thing we had to do was replace a senior point guard, but Devin Harris has done a great job of playing strictly point for us,” Ryan said.
Lone senior Penney has answered the call as well, averaging more than 16 points and five rebounds a game for the Badgers. Preventing these two from penetrating will be the key to staying out of foul trouble for the Wolverines.
If Penney is able to get inside and attack Michigan’s big men, it will make for a difficult situation for Michigan.
Last season, Michigan split with Wisconsin, winning at Crisler Arena 64-53 early on, but losing 74-54 at the Kohl Center in Madison.