Wisconsin-Michigan State Preview: One For All The Marbles

You're looking at the future of the Big Ten ... or the NBA. - Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

For the Badgers and Spartans, the race for a Big Ten title has morphed into a battle to avoid falling out of a top four seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Even before Wisconsin fell to Purdue, chances were remote that the Badgers would grab a Big Ten regular season championship this year. But with the easiest schedule among contenders, there was rational hope.

Caution be damned, that rational hope turned into irrational excitement for some of us. Daydreaming of tiebreaker scenarios for the top seed at the United Center and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament? Yes, it happened.

It is hard to put into words exactly what UW's loss to the Boilermakers did to me personally, but you probably felt it too. After all the talk about how terrible the Badgers were early on, it seemed like everyone got just a little too high on the team after wins over Indiana and Michigan. The Purdue loss just validated that kernel of doubt we were all trying to suppress.

This was the same team that couldn't get out of its own way against Michigan State, got blown out in the first half by Iowa and propped up a home win over Illinois like some kind of masterpiece.

But things fall apart. And it happens to many, not only Wisconsin (20-9, 11-5 Big Ten).

Ask Indiana, which also just lost unexpectedly on Senior Night, two days after Wisconsin did. Ask Michigan, which lost to lowly Penn State.

Or you could ask Michigan State, Wisconsin's opponent Thursday night at 8 p.m. At the end of the day back on February 17, the Spartans (22-7, 11-5) were in a tie with Indiana atop the Big Ten standings at 11-2. They knew they had a tough road ahead, but with a two-game cushion over the pack, Michigan State was back.

Oops. That was before junior guard Keith Appling's struggles began. And before the team's 3-point shooting fell off a cliff.

Appling has a assist-to-turnover ratio of 8:9 over the past three games against Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana (and four turnovers against Nebraska before that). Plus, he got torched by Aaron Craft offensively down the stretch.

Following Appling's lead (0-for-9), Michigan State has shot terribly from long distance during this three-game losing streak against top-flight conference opponents, hitting just 12-of-48 (25 percent) on threes.

The Badgers, typically stellar guarding against 3-pointers, allowed D.J. Byrd to go HAM at the Kohl Center. Granted, some of the looks were well-covered, but for a team with the best 3-point field goal defense in Big Ten play (28.4 percent), the defensive performance was a major culprit in the loss.

Allowing the Spartans to do anything similar in East Lansing will be a death sentence. Michigan State is sneakily the second-best 3-point shooting squad in conference play at 36.7 percent, behind only Indiana.

One big reason is Gary Harris, the leading candidate for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Harris might be the most consistent offensive force for Tom Izzo, pumping in 42.2 percent of his treys and taking the highest percentage of shots on the team, which gives the rookie the best offensive rating among MSU players.

Conversely, UW is touting its own freshman standout, Sam Dekker, for Sixth Man of the Year as he's grown from bit player to a legitimate offensive firecracker. Dekker is averaging 13 ppg over his last six, but more impressively has kept his shooting percentage high (59 percent) while playing almost 24 minutes per game over that span.

Until Jared Berggren or Mike Bruesewitz wakes up on the offensive end, Dekker's ability to score from all spots on the floor is one of the few ways Wisconsin can keep the Spartan defense honest. And it goes without saying that the rebounding has to be up to snuff as well, which will be especially challenging at the Breslin Center as always.

While technically both teams are still playing for the chance at a share of a Big Ten title, this game becomes more about what the loser might not get ... namely, a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. And talk about a double-whammy: the loser could also be the only upper tier team left out of a four-way tie for the conference title in the scenario where Michigan beats Indiana.

For Wisconsin this might hit home a little more (losing to Michigan State and Michigan beating Indiana) because it would almost certainly snap Bo Ryan's streak of top four league finishes and put them in a Thursday game next week in Chicago. For all our Spanish-speaking readers out there, this situation is "muy mal."

If instead Michigan loses to IU, both Wisconsin and Michigan State are assured of a first-round bye, but have no shot at the trophy. While Michigan State has zero chance of gaining the No. 1 seed, Wisconsin has one scenario left that would do the trick, thanks to its advantageous head-to-head record against Michigan and Indiana.

But really neither side can afford to lose, lest they move a half-step closer to the dreaded Minnesota-Illinois-Iowa axis of mediocrity.

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Michigan State
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: 39% (59-57 W) 61 possessions

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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.

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