Thanks to Mitch McGary’s spark-plug effort, the Michigan Wolverines dodged another Penn State landmine in Round 1 of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday. Their reward for winning: a matchup with the always-tough Wisconsin Badgers.
Michigan lost a heartbreaker in Madison on Feb. 9, as Ben Brust drained a half-court shot to force overtime. That setback was the third of six that the Wolverines suffered in Big Ten play — had Brust’s shot not fallen, Michigan would have (at the very least) had a first-round bye in this Big Ten Tournament.
Can the Wolverines gain revenge on Friday and move on to the conference tournament semifinals?
How Michigan Can Win: Get Nik Stauskas involved early.
In that earlier loss to Wisconsin, only two Wolverines — Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., as you might expect — made it to double digits on the scoresheet (Mitch McGary had a dozen off the bench). Stauskas, smack-dab in the middle of his Big Ten cold streak, wound up with just seven points and hit only one of five 3-point attempts.
The Wolverines badly need a third scoring option Friday to get through Wisconsin’s defense, and it does not look like Glenn Robinson III will provide it. So that leaves the sharp-shooting Stauskas as the tertiary option behind the Burke-Hardaway duo.
How Wisconsin Can Win It: Crash the boards.
Even with Jordan Morgan out of the lineup, the Wolverines held their own on the glass in Madison, finishing with just two less rebounds than the Badgers (39-37). Michigan also won the rebounding battle against Penn State Thursday.
But the Wolverines were hammered on the boards in their regular season-ending loss to Indiana — the Hoosiers grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and finished with a 47-26 overall edge. If Wisconsin can exploit that rather weak aspect of Michigan’s game, it will make the Maize and Blue’s job substantially tougher on Friday.
Wisconsin is not a sensational rebounding team, but it did finish in the top 75 in the country this season.
The X-Factor: Morgan.
McGary was just coming into his own when he scored 12 points and grabbed eight boards in that game at Wisconsin. He starred in the Wolverines’ win over Penn State on Thursday, coming off the bench to lift his team from an early malaise.
It’s Morgan, though, who will start Friday — and who was out of the lineup for that earlier loss to the Badgers. Morgan continues to have substantial trouble finishing, as evidenced by the three baskets he gave away early Thursday (and one after halftime) and his defense has struggled at times since his ankle injury.
When he’s right, however, he gives Michigan a solid option off their pick-and-rolls up top and he can clean the boards on defense. Michigan needs both of those attributes to come to the forefront in the quarterfinals.
Prediction: For the first 25 minutes of their game Thursday, the Wolverines appeared as if they might sleepwalk their way to another loss to Penn State. Given how they fell to Indiana last Sunday, it was a little hard to blame them.
However, Michigan turned it on late and pulled away for an easy victory. Even more importantly, they recovered to put on display their all-around talent and a great deal of fight.
If Michigan comes out of the block with confidence Friday, Wisconsin will have its hands full. That’s not to say the Badgers are slouches — they did go 2-0 combined against Michigan and Indiana this year — but the Wolverines have more talent, on paper.
This is game No. 2 of Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament Revenge Tour and, if anyone shows up to help Burke and Hardaway, the Wolverines will put up another victory.
Michigan 66, Wisconsin 61