Michigan wasn’t supposed to be in the Big Ten title discussion a season ago but overcame the departures of top players to win the league.
The Wolverines, similarly depleted this season, aren’t in bad shape three-plus weeks into the conference slate, though losing top scorer Caris LeVert has further complicated matters and the level of competition has left something to be desired.
The second of those variables will shift Saturday night when they welcome No. 6 Wisconsin to Ann Arbor, beginning a five-game stretch which includes matchups with four of the other Big Ten teams with two or fewer conference losses.
Michigan (12-7, 5-2) has dropped just three Big Ten home games during a run of three-plus years that’s included two regular-season conference titles with stars like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. – all currently in the NBA. The last of those losses came against the Badgers (17-2, 5-1), who have won five of six in Ann Arbor.
LeVert, out for the season with a left foot fracture, scored a then-career high 25 points, but even that wasn’t enough as Wisconsin won 75-62 on Feb. 16. Frank Kaminsky led the Badgers with 25 points and 11 rebounds, and the 7-footer has returned for wins over Nebraska and Iowa after missing a 67-62 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 11 with a concussion.
"There are a lot of categories where LeVert affected the game," Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard told the team’s official website. "His absence is kind of like (Kaminsky’s) absence was for us. LeVert sometimes impacts the game in so many other ways than what you see on a stat sheet. But they got some confidence from their win at Rutgers, and they’ve had a few more days to practice without him before playing us."
Whereas Michigan managed Tuesday’s 54-50 win over the Scarlet Knights in its first game without LeVert, the Badgers lost to them without Kaminsky and also lost Traevon Jackson to a broken right foot that day. The starting point guard will miss at least six weeks, though his absence wasn’t strongly felt in Tuesday’s 82-50 victory over the Hawkeyes.
Bronson Koenig has started the last three games to account for the two injuries, and the sophomore guard has scored in double figures in each, shooting 57.1 percent from 3-point range.
Forwards Sam Dekker (17 points) and Nigel Hayes (16) led the way against Iowa, while Kaminsky had 13 points and grabbed 11 boards to lead a 37-23 rebounding advantage.
While the Badgers have won their five league games with Kaminsky by an average of 18.8 points, things have not come easily for Michigan. The five conference wins were all by single digits and losses at Purdue and Ohio State averaged 16.0 points.
Offensive struggles have crept in over the past three games, averaging 54.0 points while shooting 34.3 percent, and Wisconsin has limited opponents to a conference-low 54.6 points.
Still, coach John Beilein viewed the win at Rutgers as an integral step in moving past LeVert’s injury.
"It’s just natural, they’re young, their leader is down and you have to convince them," Beilein said. "And now it gives credence to ‘You can do things. You can get blown out as well but you can win again. You just have to stay together, play together, play smart basketball.’"
Freshman Aubrey Dawkins made his first start and scored 11 points. It was just his second game cracking 20 minutes, but he’s averaged 15.5 points on 62.5 percent shooting in those games.
Michigan has won three of its last four against the top 10, though its only shot this season ended in an 80-53 loss at then-No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 13. That stretch began with a 77-70 victory at then-No. 3 Wisconsin on Jan. 18, 2014.
After hosting Nebraska on Tuesday, Michigan plays Iowa and Michigan State – both 4-2 in conference play – before visiting 23rd-ranked Indiana (5-1).