Michigan Basketball: 3 Keys to Beating Wisconsin for Big Ten Title

Mar 5, 2017; Lincoln, NE, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Zak Irvin (21) shoots over Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Tai Webster (0) in the second half at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Michigan won 93-57. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2017; Lincoln, NE, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Zak Irvin (21) shoots over Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Tai Webster (0) in the second half at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Michigan won 93-57. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports /
1 of 3
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports /

Michigan basketball will battle Wisconsin today for the Big Ten title, here are some keys to victory for the Wolverines.

Technically, Michigan basketball has never won a Big Ten tournament. The program’s triumph in the 1998 inaugural competition was vacated due to NCAA violations.

When Michigan got to the final in 2014, the freshmen years of Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, they were run out of the gym by Michigan State. Walton, after keeping a hungry Minnesota team at bay with 29 points, told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson how badly he wanted to win the tournament. They now have the chance.

The Wolverines are peaking at the proverbial “right time” that analysts use to describe the sweet spot in February and March. Since a loss to a mediocre Ohio State squad, Michigan has won nine of their past eleven. A buzzer beater loss to tournament-bound Northwestern was understandable, and the OT defeat in Minneapolis has now been avenged. The path to a long-awaited Big Ten tournament victory now goes through Wisconsin and it’s worth recounting how Michigan got to Sunday’s game.

Michigan basketball has banded together since their plane accident on Wednesday night. They rolled into the Verizon Center Thursday morning less than two hours before tip. They donned practice uniforms and thoroughly dominated Illinois.

But there was hesitation to get on a plane and fly to this tournament, which is strange to think about as Michigan sits on the edge of a championship. As Derrick Walton said to Brendan Quinn of MLive, “I was focused on what just happened. Basketball was the last thing on my mind.” As Michigan plays on this season, it’s worth remembering how lucky we are to have this team to root for. Since deciding to forge on, the tournament has been a rallying cry for the Wolverines.

The closeness of the Wolverines was tested in players’ only meetings after the loss to the Buckeyes. The team rallied and closed the season on a 6-2 run. They decided not to forfeit against Illinois, and smoked them. They took on the Big Ten’s top ranked team in Purdue, surviving multiple blows from Isaac Haas and Carsen Edwards. Said Beilein afterward: “I don’t think they want to lose sight … as they go forward in their lives,” he said about his players, “of how different that could have turned out.” Basketball has been an outlet for these student athletes to deal with a bad situation.

Yesterday, Michigan basketball never lost focus against the Golden Gophers. It jumped out to a 14 point lead in the first half, and after Minnesota cut it close in the second half, the Wolverines tightened up.

Derrick Walton showed off the clutch gene he’s been developing this season, scoring 29 and assisting on nine buckets. The Detroit native tried to prove that he was better than Nate Mason, who made first team All Big Ten over Michigan’s senior. Mo Wagner helped Walton open the floodgates early on, making his first 5 shots.

Michigan faces the Wisconsin Badgers later today, hoping to improve their seeding on Selection Sunday. Read on for the keys to the game:

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin will need to be great.

Walton’s stats have already been mentioned above. Even then, it’s hard to put into words how in control of the game the senior was. Walton was pushing the ball, finding Michigan cutters across the lane, and shaking whatever defender that came in his path.

Walton’s crossover has become especially devastating during postseason play. As noted by Xavier Simpson, Walton has always had these in his arsenal. Michigan basketball will need everything he has in the bag of tricks.

On a fastbreak in the first half, Walton hit a Minnesota defender with a left to right, fading away for nothing but net. The cameras cut to Mo Wagner on the bench, loving every second. The crossover came in handy again down the wire, freeing Walton from Minnesota big men for 3-point jumpers.

However, in the past two games against Wisconsin, Zak Irvin has outplayed his backcourt mate. The first match-up saw the Fishers native utilize pick and rolls with Wagner to the tune of 20 points. He added 3 assists, finding Wagner cutting twice on slips. The other was a skip pass to an open Muhammad Ali Abdur Rahkman for a wide open three pointer.

When Irvin wasn’t creating for himself and others, he was flying off screens, making it difficult for Wisconsin to stick with him. Irvin also helped Michigan’s bigs by pulling down 6 boards.

In the victory at Crisler, Irvin had a nearly identical line of 18 points, 5 boards, and 3 assists. This time, Walton slumped after scoring 20 plus in five straight games. Irvin helped make up for it by utilizing the pick and roll with Wagner, going back to what worked in the first matchup. Speaking of Wagner: