College basketball wasted little time producing reverberations on what is the busiest day (150 games) of the 2018-19 schedule.
We entered Saturday with only two undefeated teams standing and will leave at most with one: Virginia.
That’s because Wisconsin played one of its best games of the season, knocking off previously flawless Michigan 64-54, giving the No. 2 Wolverines their first loss of the season and in the process leaving Michigan State as the only Big Ten unbeaten.
The Badgers (12-6, 4-3 Big Ten) also avoided taking a three-game home losing streak that, had it happened, would have introduced real concerns about them missing the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years. That hasn’t happened since the mid-1990s.
But those worries can be put aside — at least for now. In fact, the Badgers have been a metrics darling despite losing at least six of their first 17 games for the third time in four seasons. Wisconsin dropped four of its previous five tilts heading into the marquee Michigan matchup. Yet Greg Gard’s team comfortably ranked in the top 25 of multiple advanced metrics even before Saturday’s huge victory. Now we have a better idea why the computers trusted Wisconsin a bit more — and maybe this kind of win can pivot the season for the better for Bucky.
This kind of conquering is a reminder of how much of a grind the Big Ten is — hey, there are 10 teams with realistic NCAA Tournament outlooks at this point; the league ranks No. 1 at KenPom — and proof that it’s going to be tough for Michigan or Michigan State or maybe even Maryland to wind up atop the league table with fewer than four losses. It’s going to be a noisy next seven weeks in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines (17-1, 6-1) were undone in part by turnovers. They came into the game averaging just 9.4, among the best rates in college basketball. But Wisconsin induced John Beilein’s team into 16 giveaways.
Wisconsin was helped early thanks to its effectiveness in stopping Ignas Brazdeikis — who’s been one of the best freshmen in college basketball — and Charles Matthews. Both were scoreless in the first half. Brazdeikis, who leads the team in points average, finished without a point for the first time this season. That was a stunning development.
Additionally, the Wolverines managed just 1-of-7 from 3-point range through 20 minutes and were 5-of-18 for the game.
For Badger fans who’ve been a bit uneasy with how the program has dawdled much of the past two seasons, this win had to feel like a throwback. The Kohl Center was alive, Wisconsin won in a low-scoring affair and it never lost control of the game in the second half.
Obvious as it may seem, Saturday was a prime example of how Wisconsin’s greater outlook and long-term success will be in the hands of senior center Ethan Happ. The preseason CBS Sports Third Team All-America honoree had one of his best games, if not the best, of the season. In a big spot and against an exceptional defensive team with a quality frontline, Happ had 26 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
Happ doesn’t have flashy highlights, but you’d be hard pressed to find 10 better all-around games by a player this season, considering the circumstances and opponent.
Happ’s not among the top three or four names for national player-of-the-year consideration at this stage, but if Wisconsin uses this win as a springboard to a big push in the Big Ten? And if Happ starts averaging in the neighborhood of 23/11/5 over the next month? Yes, he’ll be right there with Zion Williamson, Markus Howard, Grant Williams, Dedric Lawson, Ja Morant and others.
And while the headline for this is Michigan’s 17-0 school-record start ending, Wisconsin providing a win in its style and handcuffing the Wolverines is the bigger story. The last time Wisconsin won at home against a top-two team in the AP Top 25 came in 2011, when it knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State. That Badgers club wound up making the Sweet 16 and finished third in what rated as the best conference in the nation.
Getting to third in this conference might be too tall a task, but the Sweet 16 doesn’t seem as tough in this moment as it did before the game tipped. Wisconsin, for the most part, has Michigan’s number.
The Wolverines are 5-17 vs. the Badgers since Beilein became
coach (2007-08). With the loss, Michigan also almost certainly misses its chance to get the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25, which it hasn’t acquired since January 2013.