7:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Michigan -7, Over/Under: 132
Time is running out to reach the top of the Big Ten, but fortunately tonight’s two combatants remain in striking distance as the No. 19 Michigan Wolverines play host to the Wisconsin Badgers from Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We’ve said it on many occasions this season, but with so many good teams roaming the Big Ten, the chances of them spending the lion’s share of two months slaughtering one another are a virtual certainty, which is exactly how matters have played out in 2019-2020 for it’s inhabitants. Take Wisconsin (17-10, 10-6 in Big Ten) for example, a team that hasn’t been very impressive thus far, but has nonetheless managed to position themselves within just two games of Maryland for First Place in the league table, along with three other teams. The Badgers may have gotten off to an inauspicious start to the campaign, but they’ve certainly found their stride of late, winning five of their last six games, though just about all of those came at the expense of bottom half of the conference. Indeed, Greg Gard’s charges have done a great job of besting the teams that they’re supposed to beat, with their last five victories coming against the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Purdue, and Rutgers, with three of them standing Tenth or worst in the Standings. Granted, an argument can be made that Spartans were the exception, citing their ranking at the time of play (24th Overall), but anyone who has watched them struggle over the last three weeks will point to a team that isn’t close to being anywhere near their Preseason No. One ranking for quite some time. And as far as Rutgers is concerned, the Scarlet Knights may have defeated the Badgers back in East Rutherford on December 11th, but they’ve been a far worse group on the road, which was evident in last weekend’s 79-71 affair in which Wisconsin gained their revenge. The hosts were dominant in the First Half taking a commanding 39-26 advantage into Intermission, though the visiting side would battle back, cutting the lead to 70-64 with less than seven minutes left to play. Fortunately, the home side managed to knock down their Free-Throws, with Senior Guard D’Mitrik Trice (9.7 PTS, 38.1% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 4.1 AST, 15.4 PER), nailing a baseline jumper followed by a taking a crucial charge to swing the momentum back in the Badgers’ favor. It was a balanced for Gard’s troops, with four different players scoring in double-figures, led by Ohio State transfer, Micah Potter (9.5 PTS, 52.7% FG, 45.7% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.0 BLK, 31.5 PER), with Eighteen Points and Nine Rebounds, netting 4-of-5 Three-Pointers (80.0%). The Junior missed the first ten games of the season, including the previous meeting with the Knights, and has been very valuable to Gard, affording him the luxury of more size and depth, while also being able to stretch defenses with his shooting, which was apparent in this rematch. Junior Forward, Nate Reuvers (13.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.0 BLK, 22.2 PER), and Senior Guard, Brevin Pritzl (8.1 PTS, 40.0% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 14.0 PER), dropped Seventeen Points apiece, with the former overcoming a poor shooting performance by taking residence at Charity Stripe (8-of-10), and the latter making 7-of-10 attempts from the field (70.0%). As a team, Wisconsin shot 48.0% overall, including 11-of-22 from downtown (50.0%) and 20-of-26 from the Free-Throw Line (76.9%). It was in those two categories that they really opened things up against Rutgers, outscoring them by a combined Thirty-Four Points. Now, they’ll get the opportunity to keep their run going into the Big Ten Tournament, with their final three games against more of the league’s bottom-dwellers, namely Minnesota, Northwestern, and Indiana. First, they’ll have to get by Michigan, which is no easy task. Since Gard took over for the venerable Bo Ryan midway through the 2015-2016 campaign, his side is 3-4 against the Wolverines, and 0-2 in Ann Arbor, including last year’s 52-61 defeat at Crisler Arena. It was one of those typical glacial Big Ten matchups that can quite frankly be hard to watch, with the Badgers shooting just 40.7% from the field, including 4-of-12 from downtown (33.3%), mustering a meager Five Assists in comparison to Seven Turnovers, while attempting a scant Two Free-Throws, missing both. The next few weeks are shaping up to be huge for Gard, who after guiding Wisconsin to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances has just one NCAA Tournament appearance to his credit, which ended prematurely with a First Round upset at the hands of twelfth-seeded Oregon.
Meanwhile, there is another team that overcame a poor stretch only to build precious momentum at the right time, and that is Michigan (18-9, 9-7 in Big Ten), who have now won five in a row, and seven of their last eight contests. This season was always going to be an intriguing one for the Wolverines, who moved on from John Beilein in the Summer, brining an end to a largely successful era in which the veteran Head Coach led them to a pair of Big Ten Regular Season and Tournament Championships apiece, nine NCAA Tournament appearances, including two trips to the National Championship Game. Replacing him was always going to be difficult, and when the school settled upon Juwan Howard, it brought a wealth of publicity to the program. A major figure from their past successes and failures, Howard was one of the prominent members of Michigan’s Fab Five Freshman Class from the early 1990’s that took the world College Basketball by storm, earning back-to-back appearances in the national Championship Game before ultimately causing the program to go on probation thanks to NCAA sanctions which left many of those victories vacated. The 47-Year Old enjoyed a lengthy nineteen-year career in the NBA, before eventually settling in as an Assistant Coach with the Miami Heat for the last six years. How he would take to coaching at the collegiate level was anyone’s guess, but now that his maiden voyage is nearly complete, the folks in Ann Arbor can breathe a collective sigh of relief, for it appears that the program is indeed in god hands. The Wolverines started off strong, winning their first seven games, including victories over (then) No. 6 North Carolina (73-64) and No. 8 Gonzaga (82-64) in the Tournament of Atlantis, before taking their first loss of the year at No. 1 Louisville (43-58) a week later. This is when things took a turn for the worse, for Michigan would drop eight of twelve in a span that saw them fall from No. 4 in the country, eventually enduring a disappointing four-game losing streak in January, coincidentally against their brethren in the Big Ten. With that said, a return to health, particularly for Junior Forward, Isaiah Livers (13.6 PTS, 49.1% FG, 44.3% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.0 AST, 19.7 PER), has provided this latest spark, which continued with last weekend’s hard-fought 71-63 victory on the road at Purdue. It was a tale of two halves for these teams, with the visiting Wolverines exploding in the First Half with a 9-0 run midway through the period before closing it out on a 15-4 spurt to head into Intermission with a 36-21 advantage. The Boilermakers would cut into that deficit over the final twenty minutes of play, but couldn’t get close enough to threaten the visitors who calmly knocked down 11-of-14 Free-Throws down the stretch. Though neither team managed to shoot over 40.0% from the field, Howard’s charges made headway in a few categories, particularly from the Charity Stripe, where they netted 15-of-23 Attempts (65.2%), and from the perimeter, where they shot 6-of-25 (24.0%), which was believe it or not better than the hosts, outscoring them in both regards twelve points. They also assisted on seventeen of their Twenty-Five Field Goals in comparison to just Eight Assists for the home side, who also committed a Dozen Turnovers. Freshman Guard, Franz Wagner (10.9 PTS, 42.7% FG, 30.1% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 15.0 PER), had his best performance of the season, totaling Twenty-Two Points on 9-of-13 shooting (69.2%), Five Rebounds, Three Assists, and Two Steals, while the aforementioned Livers added Nineteen Points on 5-of-11 shooting, and 8-of-8 shooting from the Stripe, with Six Rebounds, as they were the only two players on the team to shoot over 40.0% from the field. Senior Point Guard, Zavier Simpson (12.3 PTS, 45.8% FG, 34.6% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.6 PER), missed all ten of his attempts from the floor, but found other ways to contribute with Seven Rebounds, Six Assists, and a Steal. This win was notable for a few reasons for it marked Michigan’s fourth consecutive win on the road, which has been virtually of unheard of this season in the Big Ten, where just about everyone has struggled away from their respective homes. It also marked the first time that they left Mackey Arena with anything other than a loss since 2014, ending a three-game losing streak at the venue.