Entering Michigan and Wisconsin's mid-January meeting, the Badgers were in the top 5 and seemed nearly unbeatable at home with high hopes for a run at a Big Ten title.
The then-unranked Wolverines won that game and now find themselves in the Big Ten driver's seat, but entering Sunday's rematch in Ann Arbor, Michigan coach John Beilein knows there's plenty of time for roles to again be reversed.
"It is great to be at the top of this conference, but we still have six games to go - with some really tough games coming up," said Beilein, whose team is tied with Michigan State for the league lead but already won in East Lansing.
After beating No. 22 Ohio State 70-60 in Columbus on Tuesday, the 15th-ranked Wolverines (18-6, 10-2) turn their attention back to No. 21 Wisconsin (20-5, 7-5). On Jan. 18, that resulted in a 77-70 win in Madison. Nik Stauskas scored a game-high 23 points and Caris LeVert added 20 as the Wolverines shot 54.7 percent and hit 7 of 13 3-pointers.
"They shot really well here and now they're at home, so they're going to be even more comfortable," Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker told the school's official website. "We have to make a concerted effort to make every shot tough. Guys like Stauskas and (Glenn Robinson III) were coming off curl screens and hitting shots. We have to limit that and do what we do and stick to our rules and play defense."
The Wolverines didn't have quite as impressive of a shooting night against the Buckeyes, but they continue to find ways to win games in tough environments in a season many expected them to fall back into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA. They've also played most of the season without preseason All-American Mitch McGary, who underwent back surgery on Jan. 7 and remains out indefinitely.
"It's great. I don't know if we expected this this year," said Beilein, who guided the Wolverines to the national championship game last season. "We're watching these two kids play in the NBA right now, and they're doing really well. And I'm saying, 'Jeez, we'd better have made it to the Final Four last year because those were really two good players.' Now when you have that dropoff, we didn't know where it was going to come from."
While Stauskas (16.9 points per game) has been a constant and led the way against Ohio State with 15, performances such as Derrick Walton Jr.'s 13 points and 10 rebounds have come from various players to fill the voids. The freshman is averaging 12.0 points in his last six games.
Michigan's latest win avoided its first losing streak of the season, and the Badgers have responded to losing five of six with a three-game winning streak. Thursday's 78-70 home win over Minnesota featured a 20-point night from guard Ben Brust and avenged a Jan. 22 loss to the Golden Gophers, something they'd like to do again Sunday.
"We didn't really change a whole lot," Brust said. "We just played better team defense - helping each other out. And we cleaned up the glass pretty decently. There were not as many second-chance points. We also did a better job of controlling the pace."
In the first meeting with Michigan, Brust and Frank Kaminsky scored 14 each while Josh Gasser led the team with 16.
Wisconsin is 4-1 against ranked opponents while Michigan is 4-3.
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