The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers (9-5 Big Ten, 15-6 overall) return to the Kohl Center for what could be their biggest game of the regular season - a rematch against the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (8-1 Big Ten, 13-1 overall) as they return from a two week long pause due to COVID-19 variants present in the Michigan Athletics community.
The Wolverines have been on pause since Jan. 23, when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ordered an immediate shutdown of all University of Michigan athletics. This pause was in response to alarming rates of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, which was first found in the United Kingdom and spreads more efficiently than other forms of the virus. The original pause was only meant to be through Feb. 7, but ended up lasting through Feb. 11.
Juwan Howard’s Wolverines have missed five games as a result of this pause, most of which likely would have been record padding. Of the five games they missed, just one would have been against a ranked team (Feb. 11 vs. Illinois). The rest would have been against Penn State, Indiana, Northwestern, and Michigan State.
While the gritty Hoosiers could have given them problems with the power of Trayce Jackson-Davis and company, the chances of any of those other teams pulling off an upset against a top-5 team are about the same as this writer having a Valentine's Day date today.
There is no formula to tell whether teams play better or worse coming off of extended pauses like the one Michigan dealt with. The Badgers played one other team coming off of a pause – then-No. 25 Louisville – who they beat handily. It’s worth noting that Louisville was without their best player, Carlik Jones. The age-old “rest vs. rust” is part of the discussion, but it’s hard to believe that two weeks without practice is helpful for any program trying to get back on its feet.
Of course, the other big story of Sunday afternoon’s matinee is what happened to the Badgers when they visited Ann Arbor in January. While they were able to shut down star freshman Hunter Dickinson for the most part, the rest of the Wolverines torched the Badgers in what is still their worst loss of the season, even after losing by 15 to the Illini.
The Badgers were outscored 38-18 in the paint and shot under 31% from the field in that game. On the other end, the Wolverines had four players in double figures and shot 51.6% from the field and 56.3% from deep. Point guard Mike Smith was the catalyst of it all, carving up the usually-stout Badger defense for 16 points and six assists on 6-9 shooting. Senior guard Isaiah Livers, sophomore guard Franz Wagner, and Dickinson rounded out the players in double-digit scoring.
Michigan’s only loss of the season came at the hands of Marcus Carr and the Minnesota Golden Gophers shortly before the Wolverines went on pause. The Gophers shot under 23% from three-point range in that game, but still managed to blow out the Wolverines behind junior center Liam Robbins and his 22 points in 22 minutes.
If the Badgers can emulate how the Gophers kept Michigan away from the free-throw line (Wolverines shot just 14 free throws the whole game) and how they played significantly better three-point defense than the Badgers did in their first game, then Greg Gard’s squad may be able to pull off an upset today. While copying the Gophers should make any rational Badgers fan sick to their stomach, there simply isn’t any other blueprint available to take down Michigan.
The Badgers come into this game following an uninspiring, yet dominant win against the bottom-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln by a score of 61-48. Freshman Jonathan Davis was the only player in double figures with 10 points and the Badgers shot under 30% from three-point range yet again.
This game comes right on the heels of the NCAA D1 men’s basketball committee selecting their top-16 teams through Feb. 12. Four Big Ten teams are present: Ohio State (1-seed), Michigan (1-seed), Illinois (2-seed) and Iowa (4-seed). The Badgers are on the outside looking in on these rankings, and would probably be a 5- or high 6-seed if the season ended today.
The Badgers have been free falling down the rankings in recent weeks. Their No. 21 ranking puts them just one spot ahead of Loyola-Chicago of the Missouri Valley Athletic Conference, who the Badgers beat 77-63 in non-conference play.
If you believe in omens, you may be interested to know that the Badgers men’s hockey team was demolished by the Michigan Wolverines last night by a score of 5-1.
This top-25 matinee will air on CBS at 12pm CST.