That was the lesson of last night's frighteningly close game against the University of Michigan Wolverines men's basketball team. Les Badgers had leads of eight and ten, and let the skunk-bears (which is essentially what a wolverine is) claw their way back into the game, slicing the lead down to three, then one, and then tying the game. Unfortunately, the tie came with less than four minutes left. And this is a Michigan team that is currently 10th in the Big Ten and has a losing non-conference record. Uh oh. Thankfully, Bucky made some clutch plays to pull out a win-- Flowers' jarring a loose ball, the Hoft grabbing said loose ball and calling a TO, Hughes making a nice pass to Landry for a three with 30 or so seconds left. The four-point lead that shot created pretty much sealed it up, though Michigan missing a three on their next possession and Sconnie getting the rebound and getting fouled certainly helped matters. So, phew, a nervously close win over an apparently overmatched but tenacious foe. Still, there are more takeaways from this game than just that.
- First, Michigan is an improving team. That have some solid talent (Manny Harris was Michigan's Mr. Basketball last year and turned down a schollie from UW), and probably have more athletic size (Udoh) than Wisconsin does. They seem to be picking up the 1-3-1 defense decently. And Tommy Amaker is no longer in Ann Arbor. John Beilein is a proven coach, successful at every college stop he's made. Michigan's going to be pretty good next year and could be pretty good toward the end of this season. I'm glad UW played them twice early in the year, and I hope they avoid them in the Big Ten tournament.
- Second, if Wisconsin wants to win, it has got to rebound better. Wisco gave up twenty (20!) offensive rebounds last night. Wisco's entire defensive philosophy is based on not fouling, forcing tough shots, and then getting the rebound. If you don't get the rebound, the whole chain breaks down-- team's get an additional possession, or are often in great position to get an easy shot and draw a foul. That happened a lot last night, to the tune of Michigan scoring 22 second chance points. And watching the game, it wasn't just luck (like long rebounds) or getting out jumped by more athletic Michigan players, it was positioning. Guys just weren't getting positioning like they normally do. It was bizarre and disturbing. As Landry said, it was "ridiculous on our part. As a team we know we're better than that. We just can't let that happen again." That is correct, big guy. Thankfully, identifying the problem is usually a big part of solving the problem.
- Third, the 1-3-1 zone defense is annoying. Michigan ran it last night. Northwestern ran an even more annoying version of it on Saturday. That defense makes Wisconsin look ugly. It forces a lot of dithering in the back court as the guards try to get through traps, which I guess is the point, because that gives your team less time to get the ball into the post. I think this D was part of the reason both the Northwestern and Michigan games were too close for comfort. It's not a common style of D, and it's frustrating. Wisconsin definitely handled it better against Michigan (only 11 turnovers and over 50% shooting) than against Northwestern, but still, it takes a lot of effort to get through, and makes the game ugly.
- Fourth, I caution UW fans not to look at the teams gaudy record (16-2) and rankings (11th in both polls) and get overexcited. The team has generally beaten who it was supposed to beat, and, with the exception of Texas, lost to teams it was supposed to lose to. The Badgers are currently 6-0 in conference, but that's only a third of the conference season and all of the games have come against squads in the bottom half of the league's standings. Things get a lot harder directly, going to Purdon't on Saturday, and then hosting Indiana next Wednesday. Then a game at much improved Minnesota. I'd be delighted and surprised if UW wins all three of those games. Personally, I think UW is overrated right now. I'd say they should be ranked around 20th or so, and should be a four or a five seed in the tournament. They're balanced, pretty disciplined, play great team defense, and have some good talent. But I do not think they're the 11th best college basketball team in the country. At least, not yet.