The day before Michigan basketball‘s game against Northwestern on Jan. 3, Chaundee Brown had something he wanted to get off his chest.
The senior wing noticed there were other Big Ten teams ranked ahead of the Wolverines, despite their undefeated record — and he wanted to know why.
“I feel like we still gotta win some more games but like I said, I feel like they don’t give us a lot of respect, still,” Brown said early this month. “They’re still talking about other teams in our conference, I’m not going to say their names, that think they’re better than us. We’re just gonna keep our head down and keep grinding, things like that.”
After two convincing wins over Northwestern and Minnesota, Michigan is no longer as underrated as Brown once believed. The unbeaten Wolverines were ranked No. 5 and No. 7 in the USA Today Ferris Mowers Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll and Associated Press poll, respectively, on Monday. And on Tuesday night, they’ll play their most anticipated game of the season thus far: A top-10 showdown against No. 9 Wisconsin at Crisler Center (7 p.m., ESPN).
The Badgers are almost assuredly one of the teams that Brown was referring to in his comments. They won a share of the Big Ten championship last season, beat the Wolverines in Ann Arbor in the only 2019-20 meeting between the two teams and have been ranked highly all throughout this season after returning essentially every major contributor from last season’s team.
Thus, Tuesday’s game is a litmus test for Michigan — and likely a key determinant in who will finish atop the Big Ten this season.
“It’s motivation to beat any team in the Big Ten conference,” coach Juwan Howard said Monday. “Every team in the Big Ten conference is a very competitive team. Well-coached team. Also a team that plays extremely hard from start to finish. Wisconsin, as we all know, throughout this season, has shown that they are one of the elite teams in NCAA basketball and also one of the elite teams in the Big Ten.
“It’s going to be a very competitive game. Expecting a very well-coached team to come out and compete.”
Through its first quarter of conference play, Michigan is 5-0 and is one of four Big Ten teams ranked in the top-10 by KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency margin. The Wolverines rank No. 7, in addition to Iowa (No. 3), Wisconsin (No. 5) and Illinois (No. 8). Those three teams were considered the favorites to win the Big Ten entering the season and, for the most part, have played up to that standard.
But Michigan has wedged its way into that group of contenders with its 10-0 overall start and early success on both offense (No. 6 by KenPom) and defense (No. 18). Based on the way they’ve played so far, the Wolverines look to have a very real chance to win their first conference title since 2014.
That makes Tuesday’s game all the more important.
Michigan is favored by four points at home and could establish some space in the conference standings ahead of the Badgers, 4-1 in conference play. The Wolverines have a relatively favorable conference schedule this season; they play just four games combined against the three other top teams, with a home-and-home against Wisconsin and — most crucially — lone home games against Illinois (Feb. 11) and Iowa (March 4). If Michigan goes 3-1 or 2-2 in that four-game slate and avoids any major hiccups the rest of the way, it’ll be in position for a regular-season title.
And either way, Brown and his teammates no longer have to worry about not garnering respect.
“We can no longer go under the radar anymore,” Howard said. “We’re 10-0. One of the teams that are undefeated. We play in the Big Ten. We’re 5-0 in the Big Ten. Everyone in the country knows that the Big Ten is the of the toughest conferences. We’re playing against one of the elite level teams in the Big Ten, Wisconsin I’m speaking of.
“Every game, every night — we embrace it. We embrace competition. And we know that this league is for competitors only. So we embrace that as well. But we’re gonna continue to keep finding ways on how we can get better. We know that, like I said earlier, it’s an early season, we don’t think that the season is over today or tomorrow. We gotta keep forging ahead.”
Austin Davis could return soon
Michigan could get a key contributor back Tuesday in center Austin Davis, who began practicing two days ago after previously suffering a plantar fascia injury in his right foot.
According to Howard, Davis will be a game-time decision against Wisconsin.
“I don’t know,” Howard said. “We’ll have to see how he feels. It’s always, how do you feel the next day when you wake up in the morning?”
A fifth-year senior, Davis started Michigan’s first five games at center. And though he will not be getting that job back, due to Hunter Dickinson’s emergence, Davis provides front-court depth. Before the injury, Davis was averaging six points and 3.6 rebounds and shooting 75% from the field in just over 12 minutes per game.