Wisconsin's game against Michigan State on Sunday was not a must-win proposition in any real sense. The Badgers will surely win enough games to get a fair NCAA seeding. Their conference title ambitions were squashed several games ago.
Yet the win was incredibly soothing for peace of mind. Wisconsin snapped its three-game home losing streak and a five-game skid to the Spartans. Traevon Jackson's game-winner provided a feel-good ending that we'll never forget; here are a three other things that stood out during the course of the day.
Nigel Hayes is the Big Ten's best sixth man
As of right now, 60 percent of the way through the conference season, Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes is the best non-starter in the Big Ten. Hayes proved yet again -- against Adreian Payne and company this time -- that he is UW's go-to offensive option. His 17-foot jumper has looked automatic of late, a result of a phenomenal work ethic that brought him front and center against the Spartans. Would Hayes have paced UW with 14 points if Branden Dawson was active? Don't know, don't care. The way the freshman ran through MSU's defenders to draw six shooting fouls, my money would be on "yes." The icing on the cake was his adequate (8-of-12) free throw shooting.
The question isn't really whether Hayes has clinched the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year award (he should have by now, in my opinion), but how much longer Bo Ryan can keep him coming off the bench. A starting designation would be a nominal honor at best, considering Hayes has averaged more minutes per game (24) than Frank Kaminsky (22.5) over the last six contests anyway and is always the first substitution. Though it's highly unlikely Ryan rocks the boat with a lineup change this late in the season, Hayes is more of a sixth starter than anything else -- and the engine for an offense that has taken a strange detour of late.
As for winning the actual award, Hayes may not win if voters view him as too one-dimensional. He only snagged one rebound Sunday and needs to become more productive in that area, as well as defensively. Hayes' competition? Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff has certainly cooled off during league play, while Maurice Walker is making a big push for Minnesota. Northwestern's Tre Demps is probably the most notable other candidate. But if an emphasis is put on conference play and total impact, not just numbers, Hayes must be at the forefront.
Jackson's jumper covered a multitude of sins
After a nice 11-0 run put Wisconsin in control at the break, 30-22, Michigan State came out strong to start the second half. Quietly, the Badgers rebuilt and extended their lead to 10 points with 13 minutes left to go. Though UW's fortunes looked good at the time, it turned out that Wisconsin was headed toward the precipice of a heart-wrenching collapse.
Despite missing two of their top four players, Dawson and Keith Appling, the Spartans fought back with an 8-1 run and hovered within striking distance the rest of the way. Needless to say, things weren't looking good when Gary Harris and Payne hit back-to-back jumpers to erase a five-point Badger lead in the closing seconds.
The Badgers were essentially cooked if the game had to go into overtime. A pair of touchy fouls called against Hayes and Kaminsky late put both players at four fouls for the game. If either fouled out, MSU could have easily ridden Payne to victory in the extra session. It was also right around that time when Jackson committed two head-scratching turnovers and a foul within three possessions that left an incredulous, blank stare on Bo Ryan's face in the final minutes.
Of course Jackson bounced back in vintage "rim seducer" style, notching his fifth GWIT shot in the last two seasons on a smooth pull-up from the left wing that broke the 58-58 tie.
Wisconsin did some good things obviously, but overall, the mood afterward was more like a sigh of relief. Kaminsky and Ben Brust hit a couple of huge timely 3-pointers down the stretch to keep UW from falling apart. Josh Gasser's defense on Harris was instrumental in limiting the star sophomore to 1-for-18 shooting on non-breakaway layups. Unfortunately, the Badgers basically refused to guard Travis Trice on the perimeter all day and he made them pay with three treys. Even on the last play, Wisconsin unbelievably let Trice dribble into a very easy, uncontested, Brust-like launch from midcourt, which would have won the game for the depleted Spartans at the buzzer and possible destroyed Wisconsin's psyche for the rest of the season. Luckily, that crisis was averted.
All thanks to a pure and simple 15-footer from the lefty.
Adreian Payne is going to be a very good NBA player
When Adreian Payne came to Michigan State as an imposing young figure from Dayton, Ohio, plenty of people saw the NBA in his future. In a hurry. But it didn't turn out that way. With Draymond Green, Derrick Nix and Delvon Roe clogging the middle for the Spartans during Payne's first two seasons, the 6'10", 245-pound behemoth appeared to be nothing more than a gangly shot blocker. In fact, he's still all legs.
Last season, Payne emerged as a very capable three-point shooter. After witnessing his performance against Wisconsin on Sunday, I think Payne has developed one of the softest touches in the Big Ten. He's become a legitimate three-point threat (44%) this year, adding to his highlight reel of monstrous put-back slams. Payne's athleticism, size, timing and leaping ability translates well to the next level.
However, there's more. Wisconsin saw Payne's full skill set up close this weekend. His clutch 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining displayed a knack for the big moment. Perhaps what stood out the most was Payne's vigor chasing Sam Dekker around the perimeter and smothering him in crunch time. NBA scouts will love that, a sign that his defense of pick and rolls in the league will be solid. He doesn't really block shots any more, but he can if he needs to play that role.
Even though Payne has missed seven games to injury this year, he will rank in the top eight of numerous Big Ten categories -- like scoring, defensive rebounding, field goal, three-point and free throw percentages -- once he's played the minimum amount of minutes. I've been extremely impressed all year with Payne. His future is bright, and once made whole, so is Michigan State's.
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