It's been hard to get a read on exactly what kind of team the Wolverines are this season.
A good team with a tough non-conference schedule? A mediocre team with an easy conference schedule? Michigan has been at both ends of that spectrum. But after Saturday's 77-70 upset of the third-ranked Badgers on the road at the Kohl Center, the Wolverines proved one thing: Yeah, they're good.
That hasn't always been so easy to determine, though, this season. A brutal non-conference schedule — one that featured losses to Arizona, Duke and Iowa State — saddled the Wolverines with a bevy of early losses. Michigan was still a good team, but it didn't have the record expected of the defending national runner-up, a team ranked in the preseason top 10.
Then, when the Wolverines — without preseason All-America forward Mitch McGary — opened Big Ten play with four straight wins, the exact opposite reaction followed. Michigan started with wins against Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State to dash out to 4-0 in conference play. That stretch included at least one fine team in the Gophers, but it also was peppered with opponents from the Big Ten's bottom ranks. When the Wolverines entered Saturday's game in Madison, they stood as one of two Big Ten teams with unblemished conference records, though they had not picked up the impressive wins that fellow undefeated Michigan State had.
"I think we're just growing into our roles right now," sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said after the game. "Everyone's understanding what they're responsible for, and we're giving each other a lot of confidence. We pump each other up in the timeouts and the practice and all that stuff, so when these situations come by we're all confident we can make shots."
All questions can't be answered with one big win, but the impressiveness of said win can certainly be marveled. First off, it's hard to beat the Badgers at the Kohl Center. Saturday's game marked the 19th time they'd fallen in 210 games under Bo Ryan on their home floor, a truly incredible stat. Michigan alone had lost 11 straight at Wisconsin. Then there's the season that this Wisconsin team is putting together. Sure, the Badgers were losers earlier in the week at Indiana, making Saturday's defeat their second straight, but 16-2 still looks pretty good.
“This Wisconsin program is so good and people make a lot of the Kohl Center because it is a great atmosphere and you have great fans in here. But for us to just beat Wisconsin at any time with the way they’ve run their program and how well they run their program, the quality kids that they have, the staff, it really feels good for our staff and for our team," head coach John Beilein said after the game. "So we have a lot of work to do, but we will enjoy this one for a few hours, but we really feel good because of who we just were able to beat and get a victory over.”
The Wolverines weathered several attempts at Badger comebacks Saturday and got huge offensive contributions from Stauskas and Chris LeVert, who combined for 43 points. Stauskas has been excellent for Michigan all season, averaging 18 points per game. Glenn Robinson III, who has played very well in Big Ten play, added 14 points.
"Staying undefeated was the main goal here, what we wanted to do," Robinson said. "And it's tough to come by a road win. I thought we stayed composed throughout their runs, and we did a great job overall the whole game."
And so the roller coaster continues for the Wolverines. A lot has happened since playing in the national title game in April. Two top players have headed to the NBA, arguably the top returning player (McGary) is out indefinitely after back surgery, top competition battered the team in the non-conference season. Yet it's been nothing but victories in conference play for the Wolverines. Beilein will most definitely take it.