A night after looking like a team with a real shot of stealing a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Wisconsin started out ice cold from the floor Saturday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Michigan State, meanwhile, looked worthy of top billing.
The Spartans (25-8) raced out to an early 7-0 lead and never looked back. Hot shooting and intense defensive pressure stymied the Badgers. Wisconsin (26-7) looked overwhelmed for long periods of time and at one point faced their worst deficit of the season, at 21 points. trailing 37-16 after a Gary Harris layup.
Adrian Payne and Denzel Valentine did most of the damage early. The two combined for 23 of Michigan State's 43 first half points. Payne was a force inside and out. He opened the game with a three point make, followed by a strong drive to the hoop for a layup. Valentine on the other hand, shot 3-of-3 from behind the arc and was front runner in Michigan State shooting 65 percent from the floor on 17-of-26 shooting.
For Wisconsin, the shooting woes that were prevalent during the ugly stretch in January were on full display in the first half. Badgers hit on 7-of-25 shots and trailed 26-43 halftime. The Spartans defense forced Wisconsin into tough, contested shots and despite gathering eight offensive rebounds, the Badgers were only able to turn those into four points.
Nigel Hayes in particular struggled in the post. Hayes has been a master of using his versatile offensive game to get high percentage shots at the rim or open jump shots. But the length and quickness of the Spartans interior defense took away any advantage Hayes usually gained inside.
Fellow freshman Bronson Koenig joined Hayes in crashing back to earth after a career night against Minnesota. Hayes and Koenig where a combined 0-of-8 from the floor and 3-of-8 from the line. Wisconsin will need both freshman to contribute more in the coming games if they a long NCAA tournament run is in the cards.
The Badgers came out of the locker room to start the second half significantly more determined and quickly the Spartan lead to down to 10, at 39-49. Frank Kaminsky was constantly on the attack and finished with a game-high 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Kaminsky took advantage of Payne's foul trouble and scored on a variety of post moves to keep Wisconsin within striking distance.
Wisconsin even managed to cut Michigan State's lead to seven points on a handful of occasions. But every Badger run was met with an answer from the Spartans. Josh Gasser's tough drive, finish and foul for the old fashion three point play closed the gap to 63-70 with 5:57 left in the game. On the ensuing Spartan possession, Wisconsin's defense had the Spartans down to one second left on the shot clock with the ball out of bounds underneath the basket. But Branden Dawson tipped in a lob pass to put Michigan State back up by nine.
Taking a page out of Wisconsin's book from earlier in the year, all five of Michigan State's starters finished in double figures, led by 18 points for Payne. Keith Appling and and Dawson -- who both missed the regular season meeting against Wisconsin -- finished with 10 and 14 respectively. The Spartans finished the game shooting 57 percent from the floor, including 7-of-13 from the three-point line.
For the Badgers, shooting 60 percent in the second half helped them finish the game at a more respectable 44 percent on 22-of-50 shooting. But clearly the story here was the early first half hole they dug. The past few seasons Wisconsin has been ousted in the NCAA tournament by some form of cold shooting offense or hot shooting opponent. Today's first half did not go far in calming those concerns for a Badger team billed as a more offensively versatile than seasons past.
Clearly a healthy Michigan State team will be a force for anyone in the country to contend with, but Wisconsin can ill afford such cold stretches if they hope to make a Final Four run. Any chance at a number one seed is gone, but Wisconsin has done enough work already this season to warrant a number two seed and getting to play the first weekend of games in Milwaukee.