ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan isn’t one to dish out compliments. Certainly not to his own players.
Yes, he pulled Michigan guard Nik Stauskas aside after the Badgers beat Michigan 75-62 in Ann Arbor on Sunday to tell him he played well, despite the fact Stauskas couldn’t find an answer for Wisconsin’s defensive pressure.
Frank Kaminsky? The guy who kept Wisconsin in the game, found answers to a strong second-half run from the Wolverines, quieted 13,000 fans in Crisler Center and then hit a step-back 3 from the top of the key as a cherry on top for the Badgers and salt in the wound for the Wolverines?
Well, he was “opportunistic,” according to Ryan.
“[Kaminsky] used his ball fakes very well, countered when he was in tight quarters, body-to-body,” Ryan said. “He finished. He made his free throws. When you can do that with your big, that obviously is going to make a difference.”
Kaminsky was the difference in the Badgers’ 13-point win. He scored 25 points on 16 field goal attempts, shot 11-of-16 from the floor, and picked up 11 rebounds, one block and one steal in just 29 minutes of play against Michigan. Defensively, he held the Wolverines in check. With strong perimeter defense not giving up anything easy from the outside, Kaminsky stayed solid inside, holding the Michigan post combo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan to just eight points and 11 rebounds combined.
“Things were happening. I felt confident making plays,” Kaminsky said. “There were some driving lanes open for me the whole night, and I felt like I could take them off the dribble and I was able to do that with some success tonight.”
Against Morgan (6-foot-8) and Horford (6-10), Kaminsky worked with ease in the paint, finding open lanes and making his way to the basket.
“I think he realized that he was 7-foot tall and he’s much closer to the hoop than the other guys,” Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said.
Kaminsky felt himself being more confident, being more vocal on Sunday. He said he wanted the ball on every single possession and that he felt his teammates trying to feed the hot hand.
Never was that more important than when the Wolverines cut Wisconsin’s 15-point halftime lead to just three points with six minutes remaining in the game. The Michigan crowd had found itself invested again in the game and Kaminsky -- demanding the ball, imposing all 7 feet of his height -- hit a jumper, rebounded a Michigan miss, hit another jump shot and then another one and an and-1.
Any momentum the Wolverines had was swept away in a quick seven points from Kaminsky, giving the Badgers a cushion.
“When you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it,” Kaminsky said. “You’ve gotta go with what you’re feeling.”
And he knows how rare that feeling can sometimes be. He might not soon forget his eight-point performances in losses to Northwestern and Ohio State at home. But the Badgers, who’ve amassed 21 wins and beaten the two Big Ten front-runners in the past week, know that on any given night it might be one player or another (or another) who’s feeling it.
It’s the reason the Big Ten has been so unpredictable at times this season.
It’s why Northwestern beat Wisconsin (Drew Crawford's 30 points and eight rebounds). It’s why Illinois beat Indiana (Rayvonte Rice's 29 points and eight rebounds). It’s why Penn State beat Ohio State (D.J. Newbill's 25 points and eight rebounds).
For most teams, there is no one name on the “must-stop” list. There are three, maybe four, maybe five who could end up on that list.
Wisconsin had to deal with it defensively on Sunday. The Badgers might have contained Stauskas, but they remembered his 23-point performance in Madison. And they held Robinson to 10 points, but they knew he could have an Arizona-like game and go off for 20 and four.
So instead LeVert was the go-to guy and he picked up 25 and six, almost bringing the W home single-handedly for the Wolverines.
“You want to take someone off someone else and double him? Who do you want to leave open? I'll let you pick,” Ryan said. “You want to leave Robinson open? You want to leave Stauskas open? That's why they're a good team. They have multiple weapons. That’s why I think our guys are still a pretty good team because we have multiple places where we can score.”
Michigan State opponents have dealt with the same issue. Adreian Payne terrorizes teams but then goes down and Keith Appling steps up. Appling goes down and Gary Harris steps up. Imagine when the Spartans are full strength. Who does an opponent try to take away without giving up too much elsewhere?
It’s not just that each of those teams has multiple guys who play their roles well.
It’s that each team has multiple players who can play far beyond any expectations that might have been set for them. It’s the fact John Beilein can say he changed nothing about the way the Wolverines guarded Kaminsky from their game in Madison on Jan. 18 to their game in Ann Arbor on Sunday. And that Kaminsky can show up less than a month later and make it look like Michigan was playing four-on-five most of the game.
“If any one of us steps up and plays like that, we can be as good as we want to be,” Kaminsky said.
But against the Wolverines, it was the 7-footer who stepped up and finally looked 7 feet tall.