On Friday, Kevin Durant said he hopes to spend some time in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game playing LeBron James one-on-one.
Well, just hours before tipoff, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Michigan's Caris LeVert threw down a gauntlet that will leave the world's two best players hoping that they can merely measure up.
In the end, LeVert played Kaminsky to a 25-25 draw. But it was Kaminsky's No. 21 Badgers who won the war, pulling away down the stretch to score a 75-62 victory over No. 15 Michigan at the Crisler Center.
Sam Dekker added 15 points and nine rebounds and Josh Gasser scored 13, but the story of the Big Ten battle was LeVert and Kaminsky.
The second half was highlighted by an intense scoring trade-off between the two, with LeVert taking control early before Kaminsky struck the final blows late. LeVert buoyed Michigan's comeback effort from a 15-point halftime deficit, getting the Wolverines as close as three, before Kaminsky took over. The Wisconsin big scored 10 of 13 points on a 13-3 run late in the second half to shut the door on a Michigan comeback.
It was the second straight sterling performance for Kaminsky, who had struggled with confidence early this month. A three-game stretch (two losses) saw the 7-footer manage just 18 points, and he scored in single digits in the defeats. Kaminsky built some confidence back with a 17-point outing against Minnesota on Thursday and took over against the undersized Wolverines on Sunday.
He scored eight points and grabbed nine rebounds in the first half, helping the Badgers to a dominant 34-19 halftime lead. It was a promising run for them after they underwent a deep midseason malaise highlighted by a loss to these Wolverines. The second of a six-game stretch where they lost five games saw Michigan go into Madison and knock down better than half of its three-point shots in a 77-70 victory.
For a team like Wisconsin, which prides itself in chasing off the three-point line, that was the No. 1 thing it looked to change heading into Sunday.
"They shot really well here (Madison) and now they're at home, so they're going to be even more comfortable," Dekker told Mike Lucas of the team's official website. "We have to make a concerted effort to make every shot tough. Guys like Stauskas and (Glenn) Robinson were coming off curl screens and hitting shots."
The effort proved mostly successful. Michigan was only 6-of-16 from beyond the arc and managed just two long-range shots in its frustrating first half. Luckily, the Wolverines had LeVert around to give them some semblance of hope.
With the Badgers defense clamping down on Nik Stauskas and forcing bad shots, LeVert threw his team on his back. The sophomore guard knocked down jumper after jumper, most of which came on pull-ups after a ball screen. The more difficult the shot, the more LeVert seemed to be embracing the challenge in the second half.
And as the Wisconsin defense began exerting more effort to stop LeVert, the bucket started opening up for his teammates. The Wolverines slowly but surely chipped away from a Wisconsin lead that stretched to 16 points multiple times, highlighted by an 11-3 run to bring Michigan within a 52-49 deficit with 6:16 remaining.
LeVert was responsible for five of the Wolverines' six makes from distance. But all that effort obviously took its toll. He went without a point in the final six minutes, leaving it up to a struggling Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to keep them in it. With Kaminsky going on one final run of his own and Stauskas managing just a 4-of-11 performance from the field, it was no surprise Wisconsin was able to stretch the lead.
Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports noted Stauskas' struggles of late:
By the way, Nik Stauskas averaging just 10.2 points in his last five games. Almost seven points below his season average.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 16, 2014
The Badgers (21-5, 8-5 Big Ten) have won four straight contests, two coming against ranked opponents. After a short stay outside the Top 25, they're firmly back in and should see a considerable bump thanks to this win.
Capturing a regular-season Big Ten title seems out of the question with only five games remaining. Michigan State and Michigan each hold comfortable multi-game leads, and their rivalry showdown next Sunday could be the decider.
The Wolverines (18-7, 10-3 Big Ten) can't be happy, but wallowing makes little sense. If they pick themselves back up and defeat the Spartans, a conference title can still be theirs. But after Sunday, it's apparent Michigan isn't as impenetrable in Ann Arbor as it can look.
|Frank Kaminsky, F||A|
|Sam Dekker, F||B|
|Josh Gasser, G||B-|
|Ben Brust, G||C-|
|Traevon Jackson, G||C-|
|Duje Dukan, F||C|
|Nigel Hayes, F||C-|
|Bronson Koenig, G||C-|
|Jordan Morgan, F||C|
|Glenn Robinson III, F||C+|
|Nik Stauskas, G||C-|
|Caris LeVert, G||A|
|Derrick Walton Jr., G||D|
|Jon Horford, F||C|
|Spike Albrecht, G||C|
|Zak Irvin, G||D|
Players of the Game: Frank Kaminsky (F, Wisconsin), Caris LeVert (G, Michigan)
Kaminsky is a quintessential Bo Ryan player. He's not the most athletic kid on the planet, nor was he an overwhelming McDonald's All-American in high school. Though he is listed at 7'0", Ryan likes to line him up deep and trusts him to put the ball on the floor, shoot from beyond the arc and pass out of the high post.
It's his versatility that makes Kaminsky such a vital player to the Badgers' effort, and it was all on display Sunday. He grabbed the ball on the wing numerous times, using his height and smarts to take advantage of the undersized Michigan front line. Most of Kaminsky's damage on both ends of the floor was done near the basket, but the threat of his three-point shot forced the Wolverines to rotate on him whenever he caught the ball outside.
The result was a few dribble drives here, a couple hockey assists there and a very solid overall performance from Kaminsky.
With Dekker hitting his shots despite a hand injury, it would be fair to give him a nod in this space as well. But the combination of Kaminsky's ability to work within the team confines, help the Badgers win the boards battle and knock down his own shots gets him the nod.
On the other side, LeVert was about as obvious a choice that exists on the planet. On an afternoon where his teammates (specifically Stauskas) failed time and again to score, LeVert at times single-handedly carried the Wolverine offense. It wasn't his best performance of the season by any means, and shots that weren't beyond the three-point stripe had a little trouble going in.
Then again, what Michigan shots didn't?
Considering LeVert's struggles against Ohio State, this is a promising individual result even if it came in a loss.
Wisconsin will get a short break from the back half of its Big Ten schedule, with five days off before the Badgers are due at Hawkeye-Carver Arena to take on Iowa. Michigan has a full week off and will stay at home, but its schedule gets no easier. The Wolverines take on rival Michigan State next Sunday.
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