On Sunday, Wisconsin and Michigan will battle in a significant Big Ten matchup. Wisconsin soared early in the season but seemed to lose its grip on Big Ten contention with a stretch of five losses in six games. But the Badgers have won three in a row. The Wolverines maintained their slot atop the league following last weekend’s 70-60 win at Ohio State, but they’d endured a 1-2 three-game stretch that disrupted the momentum they’d attained to that point.
The keys to the game are simple. Michigan shoots 3-pointers better than any team in the Big Ten (40.2 percent in league play). When they’re only average beyond the arc, however, the Wolverines aren’t the same team. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have to help this team excel against a Wisconsin defense that held Michigan State to 0.91 points per possession during its 60-58 win over the Spartans on Sunday. When Wisconsin’s defense is that restrictive, it’s always a tough opponent.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Michigan is 18-2 when its offensive efficiency is 105.0 or greater and 0-4 when it’s below that. This game features one of the nation’s most powerful offenses (Michigan is third in offensive efficiency) versus a steadily improving defense (Wisconsin was 46th in adjusted defensive efficiency entering its matchup against Minnesota on Thursday night).
Two specific players -- Stauskas and Wisconsin star Sam Dekker -- will be pivotal to the final outcome, though. It’s obvious that teams tend to follow their leaders. That’s why San Diego State suffered its first loss since November when Xavier Thames couldn’t find the rim against Wyoming. That’s why Oklahoma State slid when Marcus Smart became a less effective player prior to his three-game suspension.
Both Dekker and Stauskas have fought through rough stretches in recent weeks, too. Dekker went 6-for-12 in Wisconsin’s 81-68 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 22. In Wisconsin’s four other losses? He was just 13-for-38 (34 percent). Prior to Sunday’s win, Stauskas endured a 5-for-15 slide in three games.
Coaches promote the “next guy up” philosophy often. And at this level, teams must be ready to go even if their top player is in a funk. But it’s far more difficult in practice.
Opponents have tried to box Stauskas and limit his freedom because he’s so dangerous in space. Dekker has faced various defensive looks all aimed at limiting his offensive versatility and forcing him to be a one-dimensional jump shooter.
Multiple components could affect Sunday’s matchup in Ann Arbor, but Michigan needs the Stauskas who has been the Big Ten’s best player, arguably, outside that rocky week. And Wisconsin needs the Dekker who can decode defenses with his variety.
The game is usually bigger than two players, but this one revolves around the efforts of both Stauskas and Dekker.