Sunday, February 28, 2016

Michigan 57, Wisconsin 68: Good 20, not quite 40

Unlike Wednesday night against Northwestern, Michigan came out firing in Madison.

Zak Irvin, in particular, led the charge with seven early points as Michigan jumped out to a 9-2 lead and the offense organically generated open looks.

Also unlike the last game, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman didn't get on the board until four minutes had elapsed in the second half.

The most obvious point of divergence from the last game: the final score. Michigan played a strong first 20, but couldn't follow up on that first-half effort, as the Wolverines (20-10, 10-7) fell 68-57 in Madison.

Irvin led the way with 14 points. Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Ricky Doyle each added 10 apiece.

Bronson Koenig led UW with 19, while Nigel Hayes (16), Ethan Happ (12), and Vitto Brown (14) also made big contributions.

Michigan attempted just 13 3-pointers in the game (making 5 of them), while the Badgers shot 21 -- I'm not sure how many times Michigan has been out-attempted from beyond the arc this season, but it played a role in the result tonight, as Michigan just doesn't have enough juice inside the paint to win against solid competition (which UW most definitely has been since we flipped over to 2016).

With the win, the Badgers have now won 10 of 11 and move into the top four in the conference standings, an improbable sentence given their early-season struggles.

The Wolverines and Badgers raced to the half after a competitive 20 minutes, with the former up just one -- Michigan was 20 minutes away from just about locking up an NCAA Tournament berth.

But nothing comes that easy with this team.

Mark Donnal picked up his third foul in the first minute of the second half. Michigan played a relatively solid first half of defense -- Wisconsin was saved on a few scrambled possessions with fortuitous openings and late shot-clock shots -- but the Wolverines would need to get it going, as they were fortunate the Badgers missed good looks in the first.

It was all a matter of when the inevitable Badgers run would come. And with Michigan leading 40-39, the home team turned it on, going on an 8-0 run and energizing the Kohl Center crowd.

But as the half went on, Michigan began to miss open looks of its own, killing its comeback effort. Derrick Walton missed an uncontested layup in transition and a possession later Irvin missed a somewhat contested layup after a Walton steal.

That's about all there was to say about this one. Michigan missed its opportunities to inch closer down the stretch -- and with Irvin pressing to make plays, turnovers followed -- while the Badgers made key shots to keep the Wolverines at bay.

The silver linings? Irvin had a strong first half, hunting his shots and making them, before fading in the second. In addition, Doyle made an impact on the game with 10 points (5-for-5), including a thunderous alley-oop dunk and a strong finish at the rim through contact, not to mention a nice catch and finish on a tricky arcing feed from Abdur-Rahkman. It isn't much, but Doyle's performance is a nice little footnote on what was otherwise not a great night for the visiting Wolverines.

Now, Michigan turns to its regular-season finale against an ailing Iowa team, which lost tonight against Ohio State in Columbus. The loss, Iowa's fourth in their last five games, pushes the Hawkeyes out of the top four, for the moment, due to a tiebreaker with the Badgers.

Fortunately for Michigan, a win against Iowa would be a win against a ranked team, ailing one or not.

A loss at home and Michigan will head to the conference tournament with a far greater mental weight than it would otherwise have.

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