When preseason All-American Mitch McGary announced last month he was undergoing season-ending back surgery, many questioned whether Michigan would even make the NCAA tournament this March.
It might be time to raise expectations again.
Michigan stayed perfect in Big Ten play by scoring its most impressive win of the season on Saturday night, a 77-70 upset of a third-ranked Wisconsin team that was undefeated prior to a three-point loss at Indiana on Tuesday night. Prior to Saturday, the Wolverines' last victory at the Kohl Center was 15 years ago.
By upsetting the Badgers (16-2, 3-2), Michigan improved to 7-0 since McGary's surgery and 5-0 in Big Ten play. The Wolverines should be grateful for that torrid start to league play considering that Saturday was the start of a 10-game gauntlet that includes two games apiece against contenders Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa and road games at fellow upper-echelon teams Ohio State and Indiana.
The recent production of Michigan's offense gives hope that the Wolverines can survive that stretch with Big Ten title hopes still intact – or at the very least still in good position to make the NCAA tournament.
Michigan was shooting 60 percent from the field as late as midway through the second half against Wisconsin and finished the game over 50 percent for the fourth time in five Big Ten games.
Nik Stauskas continued to showcase an improved ability to create off the dribble for himself and his teammates, scoring a game-high 23 points and dishing out four assists. Caris Levert and Glenn Robinson III performed well in a supporting role, combining for an efficient 34 points from the wing positions. And while neither Jon Horford nor Jordan Morgan are as talented as McGary, each connected on the three shots they attempted, played solid post defense and helped the Wolverines win the rebounding battle 32-30.
The biggest shot of the game belonged to Stauskas after the Badgers had whittled a 15-point deficit to one in the final two minutes. Stauskas dribbled between his legs, got defender Nigel Hayes off balance and buried a step-back 3-pointer from the left wing to extend Michigan's lead to four with just over a minute to play.
Such defensive issues are uncharacteristic of a Bo Ryan team, but it's the second straight game Wisconsin has been shredded off the dribble. Indiana also exposed the Badgers on Tuesday night, shooting 51.6 percent from the field and consistently getting to the rim whenever it wanted.
Don't discount Wisconsin in the Big Ten though. Not only is the Big Ten champ likely to have three or four losses, the Badgers still have the league's most favorable schedule since they face Michigan State and Ohio State at home. Plus, it's probably a good bet that Ryan will solve the defensive problems the Badgers have had of late.
No, the story of Saturday night is Michigan, which validated its strong start to Big Ten play. It's a tall order to expect the Wolverines to remain at the top of the league with the gauntlet they have coming up, but it's clear that even without McGary, they can't be discounted.