Michigan will play back-to-back home games for only the fourth (and final) time of the season. The Wolverines host Wisconsin tonight (7:00 p.m., BTN) in the Crisler Center, searching for any bit of life left in a season quickly slipping away.
The Badgers are 16-6 (8-3 Big Ten) and head to Ann Arbor after back-to-back losses but are still tied for second in the Big Ten with Illinois. Wisconsin is ranked 13th by KenPom and should be favored in its next eight games before closing the season at Mackey Arena.
Greg Gard’s turnaround season is an example of the value of roster continuity but also intelligent and decisive shopping in the transfer portal. The Badgers look like almost the same team as last year, but some key newcomers have helped everyone else’s roles fall into place more optimally.
Wisconsin’s roster is built around most of the same players from last year — ranked 8th nationally in minutes continuity — but climbed 132 spots in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Badgers finished 140th in offense and 291st in effective field goal percentage last year, only to soar to 8th in offense and 65th in effective field goal percentage.
Adding St. John’s transfer wing AJ Storr has made a crucial difference, but almost everyone else on Wisconsin’s roster is having a significantly improved shooting year. Wisconsin’s 2-point shooting is up from 46.3% (322nd) to 53.6% (63rd), and its free-throw shooting is up from 69.1% (287th) to 77.5% (20th). Gard’s group averages 1.16 points per trip in league games, good for second-best in the league after finishing 12th last season.
Defensively, avid readers of this site know what to expect from Wisconsin. The Badger defense keeps everything in front, forces tough shots, and cleans up the glass. Wisconsin has been solid on that end, but maybe not as elite as their reputation. The Badgers are ranked 33rd in adjusted defensive efficiency but just 7th in the Big Ten at 1.07 points allowed per possession.
Wisconsin’s field goal defense has taken a notable slip this season. The Badgers allow 50.5% 2-point shooting (180th) and 35.7% 3-point shooting (300th) for a 51.6 eFG% (239th). In Big Ten games, opponents are shooting 50.1% on twos and 37.4% on threes for a 52.2 eFG% — all in the league’s bottom half.
It’s no secret that Wisconsin will play mostly drop coverage against ball screens. That forces opposing guards and wings to pull up for jumpers in that 15-to-19-foot range around the free throw line and hit tough shots. Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin grades out in the 96th percentile regarding the percentage of long twos forced by the defense, per Synergy.
It’s tough to get shots at the rim against Wisconsin (2nd percentile in volume), but there’s no rim protection when you get there (1st percentile in defense), as teams shoot 64.6% on those attempts.
6-foot-7 St. John’s transfer AJ Storr has made a significant impact starting on the wing. Storr is a big wing who uses 29.7% of offensive possessions, and is a downhill slasher with the size and length to shoot over smaller defenders.
Storr can play with or without the ball but usually looks for his own shot as a creator. He shoots on 72% of his ball screen plays and drives left on 68% of his drives. He’s been just okay as a catch-and-shoot threat (29%, 43 eFG%). His size is effective in finishing at the rim (56% on 123 attempts), and his pull-up is his scoring weapon of choice, shooting 40% on pull-up jumpers (48 eFG%).
He’s a bit of a unique scout but provides a scoring punch in late-clock situations that Wisconsin lacked last year.
6-foot-9 super senior Tyler Wahl had the worst season of his career last year as he battled through injuries. He shot 44% on twos and 63% at the line with a 93 offensive rating. He’s healthy and significantly improved this year. Wahl is shooting 58% on twos and 69% at the stripe. His offensive rating is up to 117, and he’s been significantly better on the offensive glass.
Wahl has terrific footwork as a post-up scorer and an impressive amount of patience; he can wiggle his way to the rim out of seemingly any situation despite not having a jumper.
7-footer Steven Crowl is in his third year as Wisconsin’s starting center. He’s a terrific inside-outside threat who can score in the post, make high-low passes, hit threes (48%), and control the glass on both ends of the floor. Crowl doesn’t get the notoriety of some other post-up scorers in the country, but he’s ranked 11th nationally in points per game created out of post-ups (including passes) and has been more efficient than the ten players ahead of him.
6-foot-4 junior Max Klesmit is one of the best two-way guards in the Big Ten. His defensive impact is exceptional, and he’s become significantly more efficient as an offensive player. Klesmit shoots 58% on twos and 42% on threes, leading the Badgers with 38 3-point makes. Klesmit is a dead-eye catch-and-shoot threat (45%) and is active coming off of screens.
Junior point guard Chucky Hepburn‘s role has plateaued a bit, and he’s become more of a pure facilitator than a scorer. He runs the show and is an excellent passer but is struggling to score. He’s shooting on just 36% of his ball screen plays, down from 50% last year and 57% as a freshman. He’s still an able finisher (61%), but he’s only shooting 24% on catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.
6-foot-4 guard John Blackwell has been one of the most productive freshmen in the league. The Michigan native comes off the bench, excels on the defensive glass, gets to the line, and shoots 50% from three on 38 attempts.
Reserve post minutes come down to 6-foot-11 freshman Nolan Winter and 6-foot-7 junior Carter Gilmore. Winter will shoot threes (over half of his attempts) but connects at a 27% clip; he has been efficient in finishing the paint at 64% but hasn’t blocked a shot all year.
6-foot-4 sophomore Connor Essegian has fallen to the back of the rotation after a productive freshman year. Essegian has played double-digit minutes twice in the last 15 games. He’s a capable shot-maker and scorer on the move, but players like Klesmit and Blackwell, along with the addition of Storr on the wing, have left him redundant.
- Rediscover the offense: Wisconsin is 2-6 when it allows 1.06 PPP or more and undefeated when it holds opponents under that mark. Michigan has only surpassed that offensive output twice in the last eight games after hitting in 11 of its first 14. That feels like the target for the Wolverine offense to have a chance at a home upset.
- Post-up defense: Wisconsin is ranked 11th nationally in percentage of offensive plays through post-ups, and both Steven Crowl and Tyler Wahl will see a lot of one-on-one opportunities through the post. Both players can score, but Wisconsin also excels at playing off those post-up actions with different cuts and screening actions.
- Dug McDaniel’s shot-making: On his best days, McDaniel is capable of special shot-making nights. He can hit every shot in the book off the dribble, whether the three, mid-range or his array of floaters. Wisconsin’s defense requires some special shot-making to crack, and McDaniel is the only player on Michigan’s roster who profiles to provide that impact.
Wisconsin has been somewhat vulnerable away from home — losses at Providence, Arizona, Penn State, and Nebraska — but it is tough to muster much optimism surrounding a Michigan team that has lost 10 out of its last 11 games.
KenPom projects a 77-71 Badger victory with a 27% chance at a home upset for the Wolverines.