Conventional basketball wisdom says that good teams start and finish strong in each half.
With this little nugget, it’s obvious who the best team was at Crisler Arena on Saturday.
Wisconsin beat Michigan 72-61 in convincing fashion, and it opened and closed the game just like a good team should.
The Wolverines spent most of the time watching just how good of a basketball team Wisconsin can be, especially at the bookends of each half.
The Badgers opened with a 9-2 lead in the first five minutes. They outscored the Wolverines 11-4 in the final 4:20 of the half. That stretch stung even more when Wisconsin sophomore guard Kammron Taylor hit a pair of free throws after getting fouled on the fast break. On what should have been the last possession of the half, Taylor picked off a lazy pass and turned a two-point deficit into a 37-32 lead at halftime after hitting his free throws.
The Badgers began the second half with a 13-4 run to open up a 50-36 lead. That effectively put Michigan away. The Wolverines hadn’t been knocked out, but they had a black eye in the middle rounds, making any sort of comeback difficult.
“When you have to come back, that’s something you have to do,” junior tri-captain Graham Brown said. “It’s not that we’re suited for it, it’s not that any team is suited for it. You just have to know when you have to fight and when you have to turn it up.”
But there’s a difference in knowing when you have to fight and actually being close enough to put up a fight.
Wisconsin didn’t even need a late knockout blow. And even when the Badgers let up on the reins late in the game, the Wolverines couldn’t finish for cosmetics sake. They missed shot after shot in front of the rim as the irrelevant minutes wound down. It was a fitting ending — one team could finish while its opposition could not.
And it was finishing in every sense of the word. Wisconsin knew how to finish the halves, finish its shots and finish off the Wolverines.
If Saturday’s game was a race, senior Mike Wilkinson would have finished first. He shot 9-for-11 from the field for 28 points, one shy of his career high. He was hitting every shot, whether it was just inside the rim or outside the arc. (The forward actually went just 2-for-3 from beyond the arc.) His game was so complete that Michigan coach Tommy Amaker called it “flawless.”
But Michigan’s big men had their share of flaws. The forwards could not establish any kind of post game all day.
“When you get it (inside), obviously you have to finish,” Amaker said. “There are times where we didn’t do that as well as we should have.”
Not all the blame can go to the men inside. For starters, someone has to actually pass them the ball. That activity stopped in the second half, when the burden of scoring fell entirely on the shoulders of guards Daniel Horton and Dion Harris. But even the Wolverines’ two biggest offensive threats still had trouble finishing an offensive play with much efficiency.
The backcourt combination took 37 of Michigan’s 60 total shots from the field. It connected on just 11.
“It’s our job to make sure that we get into our offense and get great shots,” Harris said. “We didn’t do that (Saturday) as much in the second half.”
To make matters worse, Horton couldn’t even finish the game. He injured his right knee — not the knee that kept him out for six games — with less than two minutes to play.
Horton’s status is uncertain for Thursday’s game at Michigan State. Even though the Wolverines showed no signs of being able to go into Breslin Arena and win — something they have not done since 1997 — not all hope is lost.
If you take that wisdom about strong starts and finishes and apply it to Michigan’s whole season, things seem on track. The Wolverines began their preseason with three straight wins and ended it with three more. Then they reeled off three wins to open their conference schedule, the second half of their season.
Good teams go through tough stretches in a game. Even Wisconsin endured some stretches Saturday where Michigan looked like it might have some life. But good teams find a way to come through in the end.
“I think we’ve been pretty solid throughout this season with the way we want to play,” Amaker said. “We’re not doing everything we need to get done right now obviously, otherwise we would maybe have won two games, but we didn’t.”
Michigan’s two-game losing streak has included losses to Indiana and Wisconsin with Michigan State to come — certainly a tough stretch. But if the Wolverines roll over dead, they might get knocked out before they even have a chance to finish strong.
Josh Holman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.