Here it is, Wisconsin's last chance to make an impact on the Big Ten title race. The streak of "fourth place or better" finishes in conference under Bo Ryan is on the chopping block, and I would be happy to trade it in for a win against Michigan State on Sunday.
Wisconsin (18-5, 5-5 Big Ten) has lost five in a row to Tom Izzo's Spartans. This must end. We saw some signs of life out of the Badgers earlier this week, but beating Illinois doesn't carry much weight. Facing the Spartans always does.
Michigan State (20-3, 9-1) has suffered through a multitude of injuries -- not just to role players, but to basically every one of its stars -- and keeps chugging along for the most part. The Spartans recently sandwiched an impressive road win at Iowa in between its only two losses of the new year, to Michigan at home and an upset loss to Georgetown. Interestingly, MSU is not so dominant on the offensive glass this season, but makes up for it with very good 3-point shooting.
We plucked KJ, one of the managing editors at The Only Colors, to preview this weekend's supremely important contest. Tip off between Wisconsin and Michigan State is set for Sunday at high noon (CST) on CBS.
B5Q: After missing seven games with a bum right foot, center Adreian Payne returned to the court for Michigan State, playing 18 minutes Thursday night. How did he look to you, and how close will he be to 100% when the Spartans come to Madison?
The Only Colors (Kyle): He showed a few signs of rust, but overall he was pretty dominant against the undersized Penn State front line: 12 points on 8 FGA, 3 offensive rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 block. His presence definitely changes the dynamic for the MSU offense as defenses are forced to adjust to a legitimate low-post threat, freeing things up some on the perimeter. I'd expect Payne to play 20-25 minutes Sunday. He won't be 100%, but he can still be a big difference maker for MSU.
B5Q: Although Payne has returned, dealing with injuries to key players has been a season-long issue for Tom Izzo. Keith Appling just sat out the Penn State game with a wrist injury and Branden Dawson will miss a few more weeks with a broken hand. Dawson has always been a tough matchup for the Badgers -- what does MSU miss the most with Dawson out of the lineup? Any other lingering injuries out there?
TOC: Dawson's biggest strength is his defensive versatility: he can guard on the perimeter, guard in the lane, and rebound as well as a true big. His injury has forced Tom Izzo to either use more traditional lineups with two true bigs, or at times, slot Denzel Valentine into the 4-spot to create what's basically a four-guard lineup. (I don't think you'll see that Sunday now that Payne is back.)
Appling's had a lingering issue the wrist for over a month now. Apparently, it worsened considerably this week. Izzo sounded quite uncertain last night what his status would be for Sunday. Travis Trice stepped up nicely last night, scoring only 5 points but posting 7 assists with zero turnovers. Obviously, Appling missing Sunday's game would be a much bigger deal against a tougher opponent in a much tougher environment.
There are no other lingering issues we're aware of at this point. But given how this season has gone--only Valentine and back-up big man Gavin Schilling have appeared in all 23 of MSU's games--we rule nothing out.
B5Q: Which young player has impressed you the most filling in for Payne and Dawson of late? It seems like Tom Izzo has a number of options when he needs to eat up minutes, but no obvious replacement for either guy who stands above the rest.
TOC: That's been maybe the silver lining to all the injuries: bench guys getting more experience against quality opposition. Kenny Kaminski has been the biggest revelation, at least offensively. He's a power forward who doesn't do much, other than make three-pointers. But he makes them at a very high rate. After shooting 5-for-6 from deep last night, he's over 50% for the season.
Beyond that, Matt Costello has probably benefited the most from the extra playing time. He's still not a consistent scoring threat down low, but he's doing everything else quite well. Most notably, he's averaging about 2 blocks per game in conference play, helping limit MSU opponents to just 41% shooting on two-pointers. He was a nominal starter to start the season, but is playing more like a true starter at this point.
B5Q: Behind Appling, Gary Harris, Travis Trice and Kenny Kaminski, Michigan State is a very dangerous outside shooting team this season. The team is shooting 37.9% on 3-pointers, the highest percentage for MSU since an 18-12 Spartan team shot over 40%. Subsequently, the Spartans are attempting more shots from long distance than ever before. Do you see this as a positive or negative trend for the Spartans with regards to their ability to advance deep come March?
TOC: Overall, I think the fact that MSU's offensive attack is more perimeter-oriented this season is a good thing. You want to play to the strengths of your roster, and the strength of this roster is with the guards. It's hard to complain that a team is taking too many three-pointers when they're making 40% of them in conference play. That said, the lack of a low-post scoring threat with Payne out definitely hurt, as referenced above. MSU got dominated inside last Saturday in the upset loss to Georgetown. His return should help restore some balance on offense.
B5Q: The flip side of the previous question is free throw rate. The Badgers are the best in the country at keeping opponents off the free throw line (giving up uncontested twos instead!), while the Spartans hardly ever go to the line anyway. Does Michigan State have to win the free throw battle to beat Wisconsin? If Appling can't go (will he?), who is a threat to break down UW's interior defense?
TOC: I don't think they have to win the free throw battle to win. They beat Iowa last Tuesday despite getting 23 fewer attempts at the line. That's another result of the more perimeter-oriented offense.
Gary Harris is clearly MSU's best option to break a defense down off the dribble. He's shooting 53% on two-point attempts with a reasonable free throw rate of 36.5. If Appling is out, then Valentine becomes the second option to penetrate off the dribble and create offense. In his case, that's more like to happen off the pass than the shot.
Michigan State has also made a more sustained attempt to push the ball in transition this season. That'll obviously be a tall task against what has traditionally been stellar transition defense by the Badgers, but the team will still look to get a few easy points on the break and avoid the game completely bogging down in the half court.
B5Q: Wisconsin will be looking to snap a three-game home losing streak on Sunday against the Spartans, who also experienced two of their three losses at the Breslin Center. Iowa and Ohio State have each dropped two games at home during Big Ten play already. In your opinion, has the power of home court advantage in the Big Ten faded as the conference has gotten better?
TOC: My take is that it's more a function of the parity once you get past the two Michigan schools. Almost any team can beat any other team on any given night. MSU's two home losses were against two pretty talented teams in North Carolina (which has admittedly been up and down this season) and Michigan (which has been almost entirely up since the beginning of conference play).
B5Q: I can see that the Wisconsin game and the Bo vs. Izzo "feud" may have lost some luster for MSU fans for a number of reasons: the Spartans have won five in a row in the series, Michigan is now nationally relevant again, and Michigan State football is now a powerhouse. Do you have any thoughts on the importance of the Wisconsin series and whether MSU is becoming more of a football school?
TOC: So the dirty secret is that MSU has always been a football school first. Even in the dismal Bobby Williams and John L Smith years, attendance was strong. Yes, the fanbase certainly gets on board every year for runs at basketball titles and Final Fours, but the excitement levels that accompanies the run to the Rose Bowl well surpassed anything I've seen in my life as a Spartan fan. I may be the prime example here: a one-time basketball-only blogger who could think about nothing about football for five months.
That said, our hatred for Bo Ryan will never fade. That's because he's an immortal vampire who roams the earth, sucking the pace out of basketball games. Oh, sorry, that's just the storyline in a screenplay I'm working on. But, with football and basketball coaches at Michigan being such swell, aw-shucks guys (seriously) and Bret Bielema having absconded to the SEC, he does remain our public enemy #1. Please take that as the sincerest of compliments.
Obviously I only care about winning this game first, then asking questions about what Bo Ryan drinks for sustenance later. My thanks to KJ for providing some insight into an interesting Michigan State ball club. Give him a follow on Twitter @KJatTOC or @TheOnlyColors.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Adreian Payne, Sr.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Matt Costello, So.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G||Denzel Valentine, So.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Gary Harris, So.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Travis Trice, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 59% (70-68 W) 64 possessions
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