Wisconsin has been able to devote an entire week of practice to tonight's opportunity. The Badgers (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) have a chance to atone for one of their most frustrating losses of the year when they tip off against Michigan State (20-5, 9-3) in East Lansing.
You may have repressed memories of January 3 in Madison. Jordan Taylor missed a go-ahead free throw with 36 seconds left in regulation, after which UW's defense forced an extra session. Officials then waved off Ryan Evans' banked 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer, spoiling a dramatic Badger comeback in the waning seconds. Remarkably, Wisconsin has gone 7-2 since that loss, including 4-1 on the road, to pull itself within striking distance of a conference title run.
Michigan State is coming off a thorough beatdown of Ohio State last Sunday. Much like six weeks ago, the Spartans are on a roll and in first place in the Big Ten. I caught up with Pete Rossman from the terrific Spartan blog The Only Colors to discuss MSU's season so far. [Catch me on TOC as well].
B5Q: This season Michigan State is rebounding much better, gobbling up the ball like the 2009 team that made the championship game. That makes both the offense and defense better. Watching the Spartans game after game, does it feel like you are watching a "throwback" Tom Izzo-coached team?
TOC: Yes and no. The "yes" obviously comes from the rebounding. Even though they're only collecting about 4% more of their misses on the offensive end, it seems like the boards have improved by leaps and bounds. That's what brings me to the "no" part. I can't remember an MSU team I had so much fun watching on the offensive end; the post scoring of Draymond Green, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne has been great this year.
B5Q: Assess Draymond Green's performance thus far and where he has improved. I thought he was the team's leader already last year, but now it's really his team. Is he your league MVP at this point?
TOC: I don't think Draymond has really improved so much as the players around him have made leaps and strides this season, and I think that's why he's looked so good. If I had to pinpoint one place where's he improved, it's outside shooting. Although his form on his three-pointers still looks a bit unorthodox, he's hitting around 36% of them, which opens up space on the inside. He also collects 27.6% of opponents' misses; that's good for 10th in Division 1. As for League MVP, I think I'd take him just barely over Sullinger at this point, but I am incredibly biased.
B5Q: There was a lot of turnover from last year's disappointing 19-15 team. The shell of Delvon Roe's former self sadly stepped aside; troublemaker Korie Lucious is in exile; Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers graduated. How much of this year's success can be attributed to addition by subtraction, or at the very least, fewer distractions?
TOC: The fewer distractions have helped, no doubt about that. Draymond's been more of a leader, it was said the OSU game was actually won on Friday when Green suggested to Izzo the team have a light practice because of weary legs. I think it's more addition by addition however. The post play of Nix, Payne, and Branden Dawson has improved such that opponents can't hedge towards the outside like last year. The other big factor is that Keith Appling has grown into playing point guard, something that looked dubious at the start of the season.
B5Q: By the same token, there are some notable players making steady contributions for the first time this year. Brandon Wood transferred in from Valpo. The two big men are finally in shape and/or playing a lot more minutes. Senior Austin Thornton has been a revelation, and I can already tell Branden Dawson is going to be a beast. Who have you noticed has developed the most over the course of this season?
TOC: Of those five, I'm going to say Dawson, and more so because of his defense. In the Carrier Classic he showed why he was a five-star recruit -- his leaping, inside scoring, and rebounding I've seen out of few freshmen at MSU. However, his defense needed work. In the loss to Northwestern he was consistently losing track of cutters to the basket, allowing back-door passes for lay-ups. He's improved greatly over the last 5-6 games however, and he was a big part of holding OSU to under 50 points on Saturday. If I had to choose a second player, I'd say Thornton. His shooting now makes him an asset on both ends of the court.
B5Q: In January the Spartans survived a locked-in second-half performance from Jordan Taylor to escape the Kohl Center with a rare win. While Taylor has been somewhat inconsistent, what can MSU do to bottle him up like it did in the first half of its earlier victory?
TOC: I don't think the key is so much containing Taylor as it is containing the other four players on the floor. As a State fan I've seen him make enough absurd shots in his four years that I know that no matter how hard you guard him, he's going to make shots. What the defense can do however is guard everyone else to ensure that Taylor doesn't make the pass for an uncontested basket. He's far and away Wisconsin's leader in assist rate, and if the Badgers win by Taylor going 8-10 or whatever from three, I'll be OK with it but still cursing under my breath.
B5Q: What are the key match ups for Thursday? Give us one area where Wisconsin must take advantage and one where Michigan State has an edge.
TOC: I don't think Wisconsin's going to have much success trying to out-physical MSU on the inside; what they can do however is out-think them. The Wisconsin bigs need to run their sets perfectly. If they do so MSU has shown that they've had defensive brain farts on the interior at times and that could lead to easy baskets for the Badgers. As for Michigan State I think they have a distinct physical advantage against guards not named Jordan Taylor. Drives and kick-outs by Appling and Wood will be paramount if State wants to split the Wisconsin D.
B5Q: Ohio State and Michigan State are in the best positions right now in the conference, but neither can afford any slip ups with Michigan and Wisconsin lurking. Handicap the Big Ten race down the stretch from your perspective and tell us what you think the ceiling is for this particular group of Spartans.
TOC: For your Badgers sadly, I think they have the hardest path -- after MSU they need to go to OSU, although not before a couple easy games. Michigan's intriguing, their schedule is the easiest by far, but they've been the worst of those four teams on the road this season. I think it comes down to MSU and OSU in the last game of the season on the Spartans' Senior Day, and the only prediction there is that I will be wracked with nerves.
As for Michigan State's ceiling, I think this is at the very least a Sweet Sixteen team for all the aforementioned reasons. I think if they can decrease the turnovers ever more slightly and shore up the interior defense the sky's the limit, depending on the bracket.
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