After layoff, No. 3 Michigan faces No. 21 Wisconsin
A school of thought floating around some Big Ten Conference fan bases is that No. 3 Michigan's COVID-19 pause lasted a little longer than it needed to, that the Wolverines extended it an extra week to duck a Thursday night matchup with No. 6 Illinois.
However, that theory, and Michigan's perch atop the conference, might not stand the test of time -- in this case, the next three games.
The Wolverines travel to No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday, return home to face No. 25 Rutgers on Wednesday, then visit No. 4 Ohio State on Feb. 21.
Second-year coach Juwan Howard confirmed that Michigan's first practice after a mandatory 14-day break looked like the workout of a team that hadn't touched a ball in two weeks.
"There were some turnovers being made," he said. "There was some excessive fouling. There were some wobbly legs."
Forward Isaiah Livers compared that practice to the start of a new season. One big difference in the start of an actual season and a restart to a pandemic season is that the Wolverines (13-1, 8-1 Big Ten) don't get to dine on a nonconference cupcake before diving into the entrees.
Instead, they might have to bite off more than a team that's been off for three weeks can be expected to chew. What's more, the Badgers (15-6, 9-5) are likely to be motivated after absorbing a 77-54 beatdown at Michigan on Jan. 12 that featured a mind-boggling 43-6 run spanning the halves.
Known for strong defense and poise, Wisconsin exhibited neither that night, trailing by 40 points at one stage in the second half. It required a game-ending 25-8 run just to make the final score appear that flattering.
Not that coach Greg Gard is focused on revenge games. After watching the Badgers muddle through a 61-48 win at Nebraska on Wednesday, when they made just 32.3 percent of their shots and won largely because the Cornhuskers have lost 25 straight conference regular-season games, he's more interested in getting efficient play.
So are his players.
"Getting out of this thing with a win (while) not playing to our full potential is definitely a good thing," Wisconsin guard Trevor Anderson said.
Freshman Jonathan Davis came off the bench to score a team-high 10 points for Wisconsin. D'Mitrik Trice, one of three Badgers to add nine points against the Cornhuskers, continues to lead the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game while averaging nearly 2 1/2 assists for every turnover.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, last played on Jan. 22, when they dismantled host Purdue 70-53 behind a strong defensive effort that held the Boilermakers to 30.8 percent field-goal shooting. Livers was the star of that game, putting up 22 points and 10 rebounds.
Freshman center Hunter Dickinson is the team's top scorer at 15.1 points per game, and he is converting 68.8 percent of his field-goal tries. Livers is right behind him at 14.6 ppg, and Franz Wagner adds 12 ppg. As a team, Michigan is shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 76.8 percent from the foul line.
Howard isn't promising a crisp performance Sunday.
"I don't know what it's going to look like," he said, "but from start to finish, we're going to give our best effort."
--Field Level Media
Updated February 14, 2021