January 20, 2010

Behind Enemy Lines: Michigan

MADISON - The Wisconsin men's basketball team has not lost to Michigan in Madison since 1999. More recently, the Badgers have strung together a streak of six-straight wins over the Wolverines. Tonight, UW will have a chance to expand on that trend.

Looking to learn more about Michigan, BadgerBlitz.com went straight to the source, TheWolverine.com editor Chris Balas, who provided some insights from behind enemy lines.

Read Balas' thoughts about the Wolverines here…

1.) Last week Michigan lost to Northwestern after holding a 17-point second half lead at home. Then they came back and beat a highly ranked UConn squad. My question is which is the real Michigan team?

Balas: Both, honestly, though it remains to be seen how "quality" a win UConn is at the end of the year. That's a disjointed team.

Northwestern is obviously better than most of us thought minus Kevin Coble, but still a game you have to win at home. Michigan attacked the Wildcats' zone early and created great scoring opportunities, but became tentative in the second half when Northwestern made a run…and Drew Crawford went off right before the half to get them back into it.

Two defensive lapses at the end cost Michigan the game when they'd recaptured the lead after falling down by 10, both by Manny Harris, but the defense has been much better in recent weeks. They are starting to figure out that they can still win on that end even if they're not playing well offensively, which they haven't most of the year.

Right now, I'd say they are finding some consistency that will allow them to compete against many of the Big Ten's better teams - so closer to the team that beat UConn, based mostly on their play defensively in the last few games.

Though DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris are still the catalysts and carry most of the load, others are starting to step up offensively, as well. It's all about consistency, though… they have to prove they can play at that level for more than a few games.

2.) Speaking of the win over UCONN, is that the type of win this team was in need of? Have you noticed a difference in their confidence since then?

Balas: Absolutely. Their NCAA chances are still slim, but they knew they needed a good non-conference win to have any shot at the tournament. That qualifies. How long it lasts is the question. The next three games are at Wisconsin, at Purdue and home to Michigan State…they could be reeling again after those three heading into a home game with Iowa, and there's no great leader on this team to rally everyone.

3.) Obviously Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are one of the best duos in the Big Ten, if not the country. If one or both of those two were to struggle, who would be the next biggest scoring threat for the Wolverines?

Balas: Sophomore Stu Douglass has picked it up recently, though he's still not shooting as well as he can. He's been asked to handle more of the point guard duties, and he's no natural at the position. He's better coming off screens and shooting the ball.

Honestly, there's been no, one consistent third scoring threat, and that's been a big part of Michigan's problem. Laval Lucas-Perry will have games where he goes for 12 to 15, but then have two or three where he doesn't score. Zack Novak works so hard on the defensive end as a 6-foot-3 power forward that he's struggling with his shot on the offensive end.

Last game unheralded senior Anthony Wright knocked down three triples, completely unexpected…that was one of the differences in the game. Sims only scored eight against UConn and Harris 18, but they finally had other guys…Wright, Douglass and Novak…step up a bit offensively.

4.) Michigan hasn't won in Madison since 1999 and has lost six-straight overall to the Badgers. Has there been any talk of those streaks around Ann Arbor? Also, what would back-to-back wins over UConn and UW mean in regards to this team?

Balas: The only talk is that most don't expect them to win because "nobody wins at Wisconsin." Some feel there's a shot because Jon Leuer is out-he's been a thorn in U-M's side-and Michigan has played well there the last few years, losing by three and then by five, playing them down to the wire.

Despite stereotypes that John Beilein wants to launch threes and outscore everyone, Wisconsin is the type of program Beilein aspires to be in some ways…outstanding defensively, a unit instead of a group of five stars, and finding unheralded guys like Leuer and developing them with one purpose. You have to admire what that program has become.

A win over Wiscy after one over UConn has people mentioning Michigan as a potential NCAA team again. There are four teams really vying for that fifth spot behind MSU, Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State (Michigan was fortunate and beat OSU minus Evan Turner earlier this year, but it's clear how good they can be with him)…winning in Madison would be a huge step.

5.) Finally, how do you see this game playing out?

Balas: Low scoring, with Wisconsin pulling away and winning by 5-10 points. I think you'll see Michigan play with great intensity, but they are so inconsistent offensively and Wisconsin is so good defensively that it's going to be tough to put points up. If Sims plays inspired ball and opens up some looks from the outside, U-M's got a shot (slim). But there haven't been many instances this year in which they've been able to do that.

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