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January 17, 2014

Badgers face familiar foe





MADISON, Wis. - The No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers and the Michigan Wolverines look remarkably similar for two teams who started the season in completely different ways. In fact it would be hard to tell the two teams apart if you didn't know the difference:

Team A: 76.1 points per game, 1.18 points per possession, 47.6 FG percent, 34.6 rebounds per game
Team B: 77.3 points per game, 1.19 points per possession, 48.4 FG percent, 33.7 rebounds per game

The Badgers (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) are 'Team A,' fresh off their first loss of the season at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers. The Wolverines (12-4, 4-0) are 'Team B,' and on paper they stack up well against Wisconsin for a team that is not ranked in either the AP or Coaches poll.

But it's not hard to see how the Wolverines fell out of the rankings, despite starting the season as a Top 10 team: an 0-3 record against ranked teams will do that sometimes. They lost to No. 8 Iowa State, No. 23 Duke and No. 1 Arizona in the span of one month, with a head-scratching loss to Charlotte sandwiched in the middle.

And while the Wolverines jumped out to a 4-0 start in the Big Ten with wins over Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State, their earlier losses have sapped a lot of the buzz people expected to see around last year's national title runners-up.

That does not mean the Badgers are taking them lightly, though. Associate head coach Greg Gard said he is surprised the Wolverines have not had a lot of press this year.

"[They're] a team nationally that no one seems to want to talk about- I don't know why," Gard said before practice on Thursday. "Because watching them on film- and nothing against Hardaway and Burke and the guys they had last year, but they're very similar to us in terms of how they play defensively. In terms of how they share the ball, how they drive and kick. They have a lot of guys who can shoot it."

Gard is right- the Wolverines have several dependable players who can score at almost any time. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III all average at least 11.5 points per game, and freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. is scoring 8.5 points per game as well.

Not unlike the Badgers, who have four players averaging at least 11.4 points per game with Josh Gasser and Nigel Hayes chipping in 8.7 and 6.7 points per game as well.

As for Stauskas, Gard said the 6-foot-6 sophomore has improved a lot since he took on a bigger role in Michigan's offense. So far this season Stauskas is shooting 49.7 percent from the floor compared to 46.3 percent as a freshman, and is getting more involved as a distributor. Stauskas is averaging 3.7 assists per game compared to 1.3 last year, and Gard said that added versatility makes him harder to defend.

"If there was a vote for the Big Ten's most improved player- right now he's it," Gard said of Stauskas. "There's no doubt- there's stuff he's doing [now] he could not do a year ago."

Not unlike Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker, who has taken on a bigger role for the Badgers in his second year on campus. Dekker is scoring 14 points per game for the Badgers thanks to a three percent spike in his shooting percentage from the floor, from 47.8 percent to 50.9 percent this season.

The Badgers will also see some fresh faces wearing maize and blue this Saturday, now that Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. have moved on to the NBA. And after Burke and Hardaway combined to score 37 of Michigan's 62 points in their overtime loss to Wisconsin last year, the Badgers probably aren't sorry to see the back of them.

But again, roster turnover is nothing new to the Badgers as well: just two of their starters from last year's game against the Wolverines are still on campus, while the Wolverines will make do with three of last year's starting five.

So given the similarities between the two teams, you could be forgiven for thinking the Badgers were talking about themselves- or something close to it- when they were asked about their upcoming game with the Wolverines.

"They're an efficient team," Wisconsin senior guard Ben Brust said. "They score the ball very efficiently and they've got a lot of guys who can shoot from the perimeter. There's a lot of different pieces to that team- inside, outside. Being able to pass shoot, dribble. They do a lot of good things."

John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.


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