Ever since Bo Ryan came to Madison in 2001 and started making life miserable for Michigan State's Tim Izzo, Wisconsin hoops fans have had the Badgers-Spartans game circled on their calendars. More often than not, these Big Ten clashes have heavy conference implications. Tuesday's game is no difference.
Wisconsin (13-5, 4-1 Big Ten) is looking up the ladder at Michigan State (16-3, 5-1) in the league standings. The Spartans beat the Badgers three times last season, including the shot-clock melodrama at the Kohl Center. Yet UW's desire for payback likely pales in comparison to simply bouncing back from Saturday's loss to Iowa and playing well again against Michigan State.
Can Ryan improve on his career 13-9 mark against Izzo? I'm hoping so. But let's hear what a Spartan thinks. Specifically, Tim Conner (aka Con-T), contributing author at the phenomenal MSU blog The Only Colors, where you can find my Q&A with Tim as well.
B5Q: Though neither were favorites in the preseason, here they are: Wisconsin and Michigan State going head-to-head with first place on the line. Do you feel like the Spartans can be considered "in the driver's seat" this early in the Big Ten schedule?
The Only Colors: In a word, no. MSU's schedule is very back-loaded and one of the toughest in the league. All four of their single-plays are with teams currently in the bottom half of the conference (Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Penn St) and two of those, plus a home game with Nebraska, are out of the way already. They still have two to play with Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin and have to go to Ohio State and Purdue. The Spartans have done what they absolutely had to do so far. The worst is yet to come.
B5Q: If you look at MSU's 16-3 record on paper, it looks rather mighty. But I get the impression that, to insiders, the Spartans have looked less impressive this year than other first-place Michigan State teams from the past. How does this squad resemble (or differ) from the typical Spartan teams which Badger fans all envision?
TOC: Michigan State is sort of Spartans-lite this year. The team is not terribly different from great teams of the past, just not as dominant in areas of traditional strength. Rebounding has been solid, but not spectacular. They're getting back 35.1% of their misses on offense, a decent rate, but the lowest for the team since 2004. The defense has been solid, but not at the level of last year. And the offense lacks a true go-to guy who could help them avoid prolonged offensive droughts such as they suffered in the first half against Ohio State on Saturday. Finally, they're not playing with a deep bench, thanks to the mid-season transfer of guard Brandan Kearney and the unimpressive play of most of the bench players. Nonetheless they have found ways to win games and have shown flashes of the kind of dominance we saw last year.
B5Q: Last season, "Clockgate" ensured Wisconsin would still put Michigan State atop of its list of rivals. Add a three-game sweep of Wisconsin in 2012 to Michigan's resurgence, though, and I have a hunch this rivalry may have lost some of its luster for MSU recently. Would you say that's accurate?
TOC: Not exactly. Michigan, having won 3 of 4 in the last two years, has definitely risen on the radar. But I don't think Spartan fans are any less intense about games with Wisconsin, who has really been the primary rival for the last 12 years or so. Bo is still 12-9 against Izzo (I think) and any number of tough games over the years have left their mark on the psyche of fans. Wisconsin is still a very big game for MSU.
B5Q: While Michigan State appears to be balanced with good offense and good defense this season, the Spartans again have an above-average turnover rate. Is it all Denzel Valentine's fault? More importantly, what is it about the way Tom Izzo likes to play that makes turnovers one of the few Achilles' heels for the team year after year?
TOC: No, it's not all Valentine, though his turnover rate has gotten out of control to the point where he's not starting any more. Yeah, turnovers. This subject plagues the sleeping and waking thoughts of MSU bloggers. The stock answer is that Izzo's complex offensive system, with a myriad of set plays to learn, is difficult for players to pick up and leads to turnovers when the sets break down. I think there's some truth to this but the more important factor may be that Izzo generally recruits players for skills other than maintaining ball security. As Gary Harris and his mere 12.9% turnover rate illustrate, it's possible to play for Izzo without giving it away at an alarming rate. He just doesn't make it the priority that Bo Ryan does.
TOC: I'm going to get up on my soap box for a bit here. Keith Appling is a very underrated player in this league. He's not yet the offensive force that Kalin Lucas was at his best, but much more has been expected of Appling. He has to run the offense, be a team leader, play almost 34 minutes per game, be the primary defensive stopper and carry a sizable share of the scoring load. I think Izzo has tried to get him some recognition for this by having him named, RGIII fashion, a captain in mid-season. He is the most important player for MSU, but he can fill that role in a number of ways. On Tuesday, though, I think the crucial battles will be in the paint.
B5Q: Reserve center Frank Kaminsky will miss his second game in a row for the Badgers, leaving UW thin behind Jared Berggren in the post. Are Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne the type of duo that can put defenders into foul trouble? I view them more as prototypical Izzo rebounders/bruisers.
TOC: Nix more than Payne can get people into foul trouble. He's a load inside and has a limited but effective arsenal of post moves. He's currently drawing fouls at a rate of 4.5 per 40 minutes. Payne is not far behind, though, at 4.2, and he can create a lot of matchup problems with his outside game. At 6'10" he has range out to the arc and can blow by people with his huge stride to the rim. I would definitely expect MSU to go after Berggren in the post in this one.
B5Q: Two young guys I really enjoy watching on Michigan State are freshman Gary Harris and sophomore Branden Dawson. Harris brings a smoothness to the off-guard position and teams with Travis Trice to offer some 3-point shooting. Dawson may have been robbed of some athleticism due to his knee issues, but is another kind of freak talent who hits the glass hard. At least a few people were worried about both of these guys being possible one-and-dones in consecutive years ... are you concerned about either guy leaving early at this point?
TOC: I don't think either one will leave after this season. The nightmare scenario for MSU is next year. With no one signed for 2013 it's entirely possible that Appling, Payne, Dawson and Harris all leave after the 2013-14 season, putting a lot of pressure on Izzo to sign some of the high profile targets he's gunning for in 2014. As far as Dawson goes, the amazing thing is that he doesn't seem to have lost any athleticism due to his knee issues. His recovery from ACL surgery has been nothing short of stunning.
B5Q: Care to make a final prediction on Tuesday's outcome?
TOC: It's just so hard for Izzo to win in the Kohl Center. Even last year's team, perhaps the best since 2005, needed an overtime struggle to do it. I'm going to say Wisconsin 60-57.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||C||Derrick Nix, Sr.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Adreian Payne, Jr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F||Branden Dawson, So.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Gary Harris, Fr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Keith Appling, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 72% (63-58 W) 62 possessions
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