Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. both gone. Mitch McGary sidelined indefinitely. And yet John Beilein's squad managed to halt Michigan's 11-game skid in Madison, stunning the No. 3 Badgers 77-70 on Saturday, handing the Badgers their second-straight loss after starting the season a program-best 16-0.
"We really feel good because of who we were able to beat," coach John Beilein said, after calling Wisconsin a model Division-1 program and exclaiming how much respect he has for the efficiency of the Badgers' offense. "This Wisconsin program is so good ... for us to beat Wisconsin anytime ... it really feels good for our staff and our team."
Michigan, now 5-0 in the conference, needed the road win, too, as Wisconsin marked the beginning of a brutal three-game stretch where the Wolverines will face ranked teams in No. 14 Iowa and No. 4 Michigan State.
Given their recent history, it was fair to assume their first challenge -- closing out the Badgers -- wouldn't be easy. Up 66-53 with just over six minutes remaining, it looked for all the world as if Michigan would get its signature win of the season – in stunningly easy fashion. Michigan had already lost to Duke and Arizona this season and aside from a recent road win at Minnesota, it lacked an eye-catching victory.
However Bo Ryan's team wasn't willing to concede a second-straight loss without putting up a fight and scaring Michigan's youth-laden squad.
Down 13 with just over six minutes left, Badger SG Josh Gasser drained a three-pointer – his fourth of the game. Next Wisconsin fed big man Frank Kaminsky for an easy, post–up bucket. Eight-point game, 5:33 left. Another stop followed by back-to-back scores and Wisconsin's Kohl Center was in pandemonium, reaching a fever pitch as Kaminsky knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the arc. The Badgers clawed all the way back to a 68-67 deficit with under two minutes remaining before Nik Stauskas hit a massive, step-back three-pointer, stunting Wisconsin's momentum.
"Any time you can wipe out a lead like that and get it to one, I'd do back flips if I could still do them," Bo Ryan said.
Stauskas, following the departure of Michigan's star backcourt tandem, has developed into much more than the stagnant, jump-shooter he was last season. His dribbling, court awareness, quickness and penetration have all vastly improved -- evident from his 23-point, four-rebound, four-assist effort on Saturday. His leadership and maturation were also on full display as the Wolverines searched for offensive answers to combat Wisconsin's onslaught. Not bad for a shooter, who just last year, was viewed as the Wolverines' fourth option.
Following his game-changing three, Stauskas earned one more fan. "That step-back is so fast, and that release is so fast ... he's quick. He's like a cat," Ryan said.
It wasn't just Stauskas, though, as sophomore guard Caris LeVert played undoubtedly the best Big Ten game of his career. He finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists, and his outside touch (3-of-3) opened up chances for Michigan's athletic frontcourt. Numerous times LeVert drove, drew defenders, and then dished to his rolling big men. It's often easy to forget that Michigan's only significant upperclassmen are forwards Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford.
If the Wolverines were to win on Saturday, it was going to have to be their youngsters -- although not many sophomores have the experience of a National Championship game underneath their belt.
The victory was just Michigan's second win in its last fourteen games against the Badgers, and the loss dropped Bo Ryan's record to 191-19 at the Kohl Center. The last time Michigan won in Madison was 1999 – and that win was eventually vacated.
Perhaps Michigan was still bitter about the way last year's matchup in Madison ended -- Ben Brust's improbable halfcourt heave sent the game to OT before Wisconsin eventually won -- as the Wolverines blitzed Bo Ryan's typically stingy defense on Saturday. Michigan opened 11-of-14 from the field, including three three-pointers to stake a 26-18 halfway through the first.
It was a combination of precise perimeter shooting (Michigan was four for five in the first half) and perfect execution on pick-and-rolls. The Wolverines' primary ball handlers – Stauskas and Levert – each took advantage as their respective defenders edged toward the perimeter, only to dish to roving big men cutting to the lane.
LeVert, who last year was a skinny, timid backup in Beilein's rotation, drained two huge three-pointers and had a team-high four assists. His 13 points paced the Wolverines in the first half.
Stauskas, coming off of an outstanding 21-point, five-assist effort in Tuesday's win over Penn State, had seven points and two assists as well throughout the first 20 minutes. Glenn Robinson III – the beneficiary as Michigan's backcourt dominated the Badgers' attention – had 12 points on five-of-six shooting in the first. In short, the trio made it a much easier transition than it would've been for most teams losing three star players.
And it's due in large part to last year's afterthoughts that Michigan is still an elite Big Ten opponent.