This game was supposed to be the true barometer for Michigan. The Wolverines entered the game 10-0, and off back-to-back dominant performances against ranked opponents Northwestern and Minnesota.
But Wisconsin was supposed to be different. The Badgers have been a staple at the top of the Big Ten for much of the past 20 years, and this veteran-laden club played themselves into a top ten ranking to start the 2020-21 season.
But Wisconsin was not different for Michigan. Not tonight anyways.
The Wolverines played like a team possessed on their way to another blowout victory, a resounding 77-54 final score that doesn’t do justice to how thoroughly Michigan (11-0, 6-0 Big Ten) pounded the Badgers on Tuesday night.
With this victory, these Wolverines are the first team in college basketball history to beat three consecutive ranked opponents by 19 points or more. Truly remarkable.
Michigan came into the game locked in defensively, and it resulted in multiple blocked shots for the Wolverines in the opening ten minutes of play. Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers led the effort on that end for Michigan, who took an early 21-17 lead.
The Wolverines then cranked up the heat even more in the back half of the opening frame. Michigan went on a 14-0 run that stretched across the final seven minutes of the half to take a commanding 40-23 lead into the locker room.
After establishing its dominance to close the first half, the onslaught was on in the second frame. The Wolverines put their foot on Wisconsin’s throat and did not let up. Michigan outscored Wisconsin 29-6 through the first ten minutes of the second half to take a 69-29 lead.
With the result firmly decided, the Badgers went on a 19-6 run against the Wolverines starters over the next six and a half minutes, before head coach Juwan Howard went to the end of his bench with 3:30 left on the clock. Freshman Zeb Jackson scored the final basket for Michigan.
1. Are there any other questions, class?
Michigan is 6-0 in conference play, and has taken each of their last three Big Ten opponents – all three ranked – to absolute school. Michigan led then-No. 19 Northwestern by 29, led then-No. 16 Minnesota by 37 and tonight led No. 9 Wisconsin by 40. FORTY! F-O-R-T-Y! Through Michigan’s first eight wins, there were legitimate questions about how Michigan would look against a ranked opponent. After blowing out the Wildcats and Golden Gophers, some questioned if those teams were overrated. But there’s no down-playing this performance from the Wolverines. They took a legitimate top ten team, folded them in half and beat them into submission. After seeing what Michigan did to Wisconsin on Tuesday, are there any more questions?
2. Defense the difference for these Wolverines
We’ve raved about the scoring depth on this team, with Hunter Dickinson’s dominance in the post, and the plethora of perimeter scorers in Wagner, Livers, Eli Brooks, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown Jr. But the thing that separates this Michigan team from the other contenders in the Big Ten is their balance on both ends of the floor. The Wolverines are nasty on defense. During a 16-minute period that stretched across both halves, Michigan held the Badgers to 2-of-20 shooting from the floor and forced Wisconsin to turn the ball over six times. The Wolverines went on a 43-6 barrage during that stretch. For the game, Michigan had 9 blocked shots, led by Livers and Dickinson, who each had 3. Wagner (15 points, 10 rebounds, 4 steals) was magnificent once again on Tuesday, and he once again gave his defensive assignment fits, no matter who he was guarding. The Wolverines’ intensity on defense did not lessen, even as the margin widened to 20 points, then 30 points, then 40 points. If anything, their intensity increased. Howard has this team so locked in on that side of the ball, and it’s leading to great things on the offensive end.
3. Mike Smith’s best game at Michigan
Smith has been solid all season at the point guard position for the Wolverines this season. The transfer from Columbia had the task of replacing a Michigan record-holder in point guard Zavier Simpson, but the transition has been seamless, despite the fact that Smith’s game is quite different from Simpson’s. Smith was averaging 8.5 points, 5.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game entering this game. On Tuesday, Smith was more aggressive in his scoring approach and ended the night with a team high 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting , including a pair of three-point baskets. Smith also handed out six assists, and played excellent defense throughout the night. This was perhaps his best game in a Wolverines uniform.
4. Austin Davis returns to action
Michigan added to its already exceptional depth on Tuesday night with the return of former starting center Austin Davis. The fifth-year senior came off the bench against the Badgers and scored 4 points, grabbed 4 rebounds and handed out an assist. Assuming Hunter Dickinson remains healthy, Davis won’t return to the starting lineup this season for Michigan with the way Dickinson has been playing. Despite that, his return further solidifies the Wolverines’ bench and provides a veteran and another big body for head coach Juwan Howard to turn to when resting Dickinson. It was great to see a healthy Davis back against Wisconsin.
5. Best Michigan team since…
To say Michigan is rolling is the understatement of the year through the first 12 days of 2021. I’ll say it again – the Wolverines are playing like a team possessed. I was born in 1992, so I didn’t get to watch the Fab Five play, nor the 1989 national championship team. The best Michigan team I’ve ever seen was the 2012-13 squad – led by Trey Burke – which lost to Louisville in the national championship game. That team started the season 16-0, and was ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press at 19-1 just a couple weeks later. This current Michigan team looks better through its first 11 games. As good as the 2012-13 team was – Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Caris Lavert would all one day be drafted – the cohesiveness and depth of this 2020-21 squad appears to be better. Right now, Michigan and Iowa are the frontrunners for the regular season Big Ten title, and the Wolverines have the edge. Michigan has their first big road test coming this Saturday when they travel to Minnesota. If they win that game, the Wolverines should be nipping at the heels of No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor.