Despite the ongoing snow storm currently enveloping the Madison area through Tuesday, there will be a Big Ten contest at the Kohl Center this evening as the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers host the No. 11 Michigan State Spartans.
Both teams dropped in the AP Top 25 poll released on Monday, but the programs are still in contention at the top of the Big Ten heading into these final few weeks of the regular season. Michigan State (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten) currently sits in third place after its home win against Minnesota on Saturday, while Wisconsin (17-7, 9-4) is just a game back in fourth after its road loss at No. 6 Michigan this weekend.
Michigan State sits in third place in the conference heading into Tuesday night’s match-up. What has stood out recently about Tom Izzo’s squad, including that three-game losing streak that was snapped against Minnesota on Saturday?
The Spartans went from whooping on teams and riding a 20-game conference winning streak to losing three in a row and looking bad doing it in such a hurry it was hard to really believe it. I wrote last week about what had gone wrong during the losing streak and the three things that stood out were not defending the arc well, rebounding, and Nick Ward disappearing.
Against Minnesota, all those were corrected. The Gophers made just five three pointers (on 14 attempts), MSU controlled the glass and limited second chance opportunities, and Nick Ward went for 22 points and nine rebounds.
The other area that they cleaned up big time against Minnesota was the turnovers. The Spartans turned it over 24 times against Illinois, 17 coming in the first half when they went down big. They committed only nine turnovers against Minnesota on Saturday.
We always ask this—who will guard Ethan Happ, and how effective can he/they be?
Guarding Ethan Happ will likely be a group job. Nick Ward is likely to get the first crack at it to start the game. But his defense had been suspect during the losing streak, and if he struggles with it, I would expect to see a heavy dose of Xavier Tillman.
Kenny Goins hurt his elbow in the win on Saturday and his availability is unknown. You might see Tillman in the starting lineup then which could be a different look. Thomas Kithier played big minutes against Minnesota on Saturday with Goins out and really played well on both ends of the floor, so he could find his way into the mix as well, especially if Goins is limited and/or one of the other bigs gets into foul trouble.
Look at some Big Ten stat leaderboards, and you’re going to see Cassius Winston’s name. What makes him so formidable, and who else do you think can or will give Wisconsin trouble on Tuesday night (perhaps one Nick Ward)?
Cassius Winston has turned himself into one of the best point guards in the country. And while he has always been a big assist guy, he has become more of a scorer this year. With Josh Langford out, Winston has picked up the production and at times carried the Spartans offensively. He continues to shoot well from three at around 45 percent and he has started taking the ball to the basket more.
He also has become deadly in transition, where Michigan State is at its best offensively. They will look to run whenever they can, and if they get that aspect going, it is really hard to slow them down, just ask Minnesota.
Looking at some other players, Ward is a key for MSU with Langford out. The Spartans need him to be a threat in the post. When he gets going early, his confidence builds and he thrives. When he struggles early, it’s often hard for him to pick it up and get it going. But, Ward is number two in the nation in drawing fouls, something that has an effect on opposing teams beyond just sending him to the line to try and get points.
Matt McQuaid had a big game Saturday against Minnesota and found his shooting stroke again, which really helped a team that had been struggling shooting the three.
Where do you feel Michigan State will have the edge against Wisconsin, and vice versa, where could the Badgers have the advantage over the Spartans?
Looking at the numbers the Spartans should have an advantage on the boards. Wisconsin has been a poor offensive rebounding team and are a better than average, but not great defensive rebounding team. The Spartans want to get out on the break and run, that comes off getting rebounds and forcing opponents to go one and done.
The Badgers obviously want to slow the game down and force Michigan State into the half court, where the Wisconsin defense can clamp down and force long possessions. The more possessions in the game, the better it is for Michigan State.
Wisconsin is a very good three-point shooting team, and as I mentioned earlier, this was an area MSU has struggled defending recently. For the season though, this has mostly been a strong suit, so it will be interesting to see if the recent problems are a hiccup, or a sign of a developing problem.
Wisconsin also rarely turns the ball over, and MSU isn’t great at forcing turnovers, so that will limit the Spartans fast break options as well. It really will be a game of contrasting styles, whoever can assert their preferred game style is likely to win.
What are your main keys to the game, and who comes out with the win inside the Kohl Center?
Keys to the game for MSU are to get Ward going, defend the arc, and try and speed the game up in transition. They will likely be content to let Happ get his as long as they keep everyone else in check.
As for the winner, it is so hard to call. MSU had lost three straight before winning their last one, Wisconsin was on a six-game winning streak before losing their last one. KenPom has this game as a 50/50 tossup.
I am going to take my Spartans in a close one, because they are a superior free throw shooting team and that is what it may come down to at the end. I think they got their groove back Saturday and will carry that over to the Kohl Center. That said, the Badgers could win this game going away if things go their way early.