The Big Ten is arguably the best and deepest conference in the entire country this college basketball season, and the caliber of basketball that is being played in that league was on full display in Madison when the Wisconsin Badgers welcomed the Michigan Wolverines for a critical showdown on Saturday, Jan. 18.
Coming into the game, Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin squad sat at 16-1 overall and 3-1 in the league, while John Beilein’s Michigan team was 12-4 overall but a perfect 4-0 in league play. Considering the logjam near the top of the Big Ten standings, the repercussions of this game could be long-lasting.
The Wolverines certainly hope their 77-70 victory will have an impact on the final season standings. The Badgers rarely ever lose at the Kohl Center under Ryan (Ryan had never lost at home to Michigan coming into the game), and the raucous home crowd brought its A-game during the showdown, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive Media Group:
No empty seats here in Madison, great crowd as always.— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) January 18, 2014
However, Michigan’s play made sure it didn’t matter.
Nik Stauskas' cold-blooded three-pointer in the final minute sent a dagger through the hearts of all the Wisconsin fans in the building.
Many commentators have overlooked Michigan in the early Big Ten season because of its four nonconference losses, but three of those defeats came at the hands of Iowa State, Duke and Arizona. What’s even more impressive about the Wolverines' hot start in the conference slate is that they are doing it without Mitch McGary’s presence down low.
Just ask ESPN’s Dan Dakich:
Not 1 Michigan coach-player or staff member even brings up McGary being out.. Other schools?? If a guy has the sniffles they 're "banged up"— Dan Dakich (@dandakich) January 18, 2014
As for Wisconsin, the loss marks two consecutive defeats after a blazing 16-0 start. Fortunately for Badgers fans, there is plenty of time left in the Big Ten season to bounce back from this loss, but the road ahead in this treacherous league doesn’t get any easier.
Let's look at some grades for individual players in this game, beyond the A-plus that Stauskas definitely earned with his huge three-pointer and game-high 23 points.
Caris LeVert: A-
When many people talk about this season’s Wolverines team, names like Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and the injured McGary come up first, but Caris LaVert has been a critical piece in the quick start in Big Ten play.
He came into this game as Michigan’s third-leading scorer at 11.5 points a game. He has also sprinkled in some help in other areas, including on the glass (3.6 rebounds a night) and with his passing (2.9 assists a game).
LeVert continued his impressive play on Saturday with 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals behind 7-of-15 shooting against the Badgers. He was a much-needed presence behind the three-point line and stretched the floor by hitting all three of his attempts from downtown. Furthermore, when the defense started closing in on his perimeter shot, LeVert attacked the rim with confidence.
His versatility was on full display at Wisconsin. Big man Jon Horford told Andre Barthwell of Scout.com just how important LeVert has been this season:
He is doing exactly what we need him to do –– we don’t need him to score a lot we just need him to get a few buckets. Caris is getting assists, deflections, and playing tough defense. If you want a championship team you need tough guys like that.
Traevon Jackson: C-
When you get beaten like Wisconsin did on your home floor against a conference opponent you were supposed to knock off, blame needs to be passed around to the entire squad and coaching staff.
However, Traevon Jackson stood out for many of the wrong reasons against the Wolverines.
Coming into the game, the Wisconsin guard (son of former NBA and Ohio State player Jim Jackson) was one of the most important pieces to the Badgers offense. He controlled the pace of the attack and scored when the opportunities presented themselves (11.4 points a game coming into the contest).
Jackson did not do much of that against the Wolverines, though.
He finished with seven points on a mere 3-of-11 shooting and never looked comfortable against the pressure of Michigan’s guards. While players like Josh Gasser and Ben Brust looked fine in the backcourt, Jackson struggled mightily from the get-go. He also struggled on the defensive end to stay in front of Michigan’s guards.
Jackson also missed a crucial free throw in the final minute of the game.
Were it not for the five assists, this would have been an even worse game for Jackson.
Jon Horford: B
It is almost impossible to pick up a marquee road victory in the Big Ten without an impressive performance from someone on the bench, and that is exactly what Michigan got from Jon Horford.
While he certainly wasn’t the leading scorer, he posted a stat line of six points, seven rebounds and two blocks. He was a perfect 3-of-3 from the field and played important defense on the interior whenever Wisconsin appeared to be on a run.
While the scoring and defense were helpful for Beilein’s squad, it was Horford’s rebounding that was most important. Possession is vitally important on the road, and it isn’t difficult to imagine this tightly fought game ending differently were it not for the critical rebounds that Horford grabbed.
There will be no rest for Wisconsin following the showdown with Michigan, as a two-game road trip is next on the docket. The Badgers will head to Minnesota—who showed how dangerous it can be at home by knocking off Ohio State recently—and then Purdue.
Will Michigan finish in the top three in the Big Ten?
As for the Wolverines, the upcoming schedule is even more difficult. Michigan returns home to take on Iowa before traveling to East Lansing to face off with archrival Michigan State.
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