Anyone holding on to the belief that Michigan’s undefeated start in Big Ten play was a product of a soft schedule was proven wrong Saturday.
The Wolverines got a combined 43 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists from guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert in a statement-making 77-70 victory at No. 3 Wisconsin. This is Michigan’s first win at the Kohl Center since 1999, its highest-ranked road win in program history and only coach John Beilein’s second in 13 tries against Badgers coach Bo Ryan.
“You’ve got to get your road wins somewhere,” Beilein told reporters after the game. “And if you get four or five a year, you’re really in good shape in the league. So it’s another road win.”
But was Michigan’s win at Madison really just “another road win?" Consider that the Badgers had not lost at the Kohl Center all season, came in ranked seventh in the country in points scored per possession and 33rd in points allowed per possession. Additionally, Ryan has had Beilein’s number since he became Michigan’s head coach. Add it all up, and you get one of the most impressive road wins any team in the country has notched this season.
Here’s something else to consider: Michigan has now won five consecutive games in the nation’s toughest conference without arguably its best player, sophomore center Mitch McGary.
On Friday, I wrote about why Michigan is succeeding without its star big man. I was rightfully skeptical that the Wolverines could win Saturday, for a number of reasons. The Badgers are insanely tough to beat at home. They were coming off their first loss of the season. And after this happened in last year’s meeting between the teams at the Kohl Center, expecting the Wolverines to win there this year seemed like a lost cause.
Stauskas ensured it wasn’t. The sophomore was terrific Saturday, shooting 7-of-17 from the field and 6-of-6 from the free throw line for 23 points, grabbing four rebounds, dishing out two assists, blocking two shots and committing just two turnovers. Stauskas was the main reason Michigan, after jumping out to a 13-point lead with around 13 minutes to go, was able to stave off Wisconsin’s furious late comeback attempt. He scored the team’s final 11 points, and stuck a cold-blooded step-back three over Badgers freshman Nigel Hayes inside the final minute to ice the game.
"He kind of slid forward a little bit and I was open for three and I just tried to be aggressive and shoot it," Stauskas said afterward.
If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now: Stauskas is one of the best offensive players in the country.
“My teammates just gave me a lot of confidence in myself and I was able to knock down a few shots late in the game,” said the sophomore, who is now averaging 17.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game and ranks in the nation’s top 30 in offensive rating (130.7) and true shooting percentage (65.8).
Michigan has won six games in a row since announcing on December 27 that McGary would sit out indefinitely after having lower back surgery. The Wolverines have knocked off likely NCAA Tournament teams Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern. This being the Big Ten, Michigan can’t afford to take its foot off the gas. The Wolverines, who sit just a half-game back of first-place and No. 4 Michigan State in the conference standings, host No. 14 Iowa on Wednesday before squaring off with the Spartans in East Lansing next Saturday.
Michigan has fared much better than expected without McGary. Whether it can keep it up remains to be seen, but its play over the past three weeks suggests it very well could.
“To me, it’s pretty black and white. You’re trying to get wins, you’re trying to get to the top of your league, and I don’t care who you have to beat to get there,” Beilein said.
While Wisconsin remains one of the best teams in the Big Ten and figures to land a high NCAA Tournament seed, it will need to tighten up its defense to halt its two-game slide. After giving up 75 points in 64 possessions at Indiana and 77 in 68 against the Wolverines, the Badgers have slipped to No. 4 among Big Ten teams in points per possession allowed (1.028) during conference play -- very unlike most Bo Ryan teams.
There were times Saturday, particularly in the first half, when Michigan seemed to get whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted, on the offensive end. One of the hallmarks of Ryan’s successful tenure has been stifling defense (all but two of Ryan’s teams dating to 2003 have ranked in the nation’s top 50 in defensive efficiency), but his team hasn’t upheld that reputation over the past two games.
"Sometimes when you're trying to fix something, guys aren't quite sure and you just have to keep working through it," the Wisconsin coach said.