Wisconsin's unprecedented 16-0 start seems forever ago by now, as the Badgers have dropped five of their past seven and don't have any real chance at winning the Big Ten title.
Sure, a road win in conference play is always nice, but Illinois is simply awful. I'm not going to call Tuesday's win a good one for Wisconsin -- it was solid and much needed, but a former top-five club should be able to wallop an inferior team even if the game is away from home.
I'll chalk up Wisconsin's win over Illinois as nothing more than a game in which the Badgers proved they still had the capability of winning basketball games.
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Now this next team on the slate, the Michigan State Spartans, is an animal of an entirely different color. Sunday's game will be a true measuring stick for Wisconsin, and I think Badger nation will agree with my saying it's the most highly anticipated contest of the year. By far.
For one, Michigan State is a top-10 team, in first place by itself in the conference standings, and the Spartans are universally hated by Badger faithful. Plus, Tom Izzo and company have beaten the Badgers five straight times.
Second, all Wisconsin fans are dying to have one question answered: are the Badgers more like the team of late, or more like the team that started 16-0? Wisconsin's play against Michigan State will go a long ways in helping each of us find that answer.
And finally, the Badgers are playing inside a Kohl Center that has seemingly lost its luster. Wisconsin has dropped three straight home games for the first time in the Bo Ryan era, so I have a feeling the Grateful Red are eager to help the Badgers end that streak and help the Kohl regain its intimidation.
Enough talk about the game's anticipation, though, because it will mean little by the time tip-off rolls around at noon CT. Let's get to our three keys to a Wisconsin win over Sparty, as Ryan and company try to salvage their once magical season.
Give Nigel Hayes the rock
Hayes is making a push for Big Ten Freshman of the Year with his play during the conference season, and he's virtually carried the Badgers offensively in each of their past two games.
Going against a player with the ability of Adreian Payne will be a tall task for the young freshman, but he's got it in him to go right at Payne on the low block. With his innate ability to get to the free throw line, establishing Hayes in the post would be huge against the Spartans because if their (arguably) best player gets in foul trouble early, then Wisconsin's chance of winning dramatically increase.
Hayes is averaging 10.2 points per game in Big Ten play, so he's proven he can play with the big boys and then some. Payne is a great player, but he's undoubtedly still trying to regain his basketball rhythm after missing seven games with a foot injury -- though he will be in the starting lineup -- and I honestly like Hayes' matchup with him down low. Ask me if I like that matchup in two weeks and I'd probably have a different answer, but given the circumstances, Ill take the Badger freshman.
A 15 point, eight rebound performance from Hayes would be huge for Bucky, and if he can get Payne in early foul trouble, that would be an added bonus.
Get back in transition defense
This has been a weakness for Wisconsin much of the season, and it's a weakness that has been severely exposed in recent weeks. To put it simply, if the Badgers allow MSU to dictate the pace by getting up and down the floor, they'll lose.
Michigan State has one of the best transition offenses in the country, and even with Keith Appling likely out, Izzo still has horses in his stable that can get the ball and go. The Spartans have the second highest scoring offense in the conference, averaging 78.5 ppg on the season.
For a more in-depth look at MSU's high-octane offensive capabilities, check out this article that was referenced in Phil's grilling of The Only Colors yesterday.
Knock down the triple
This is probably a dumb final key, especially considering it totally bit me in the arse a week and a half ago against Northwestern, but in game of such great magnitude, Wisconsin has to make outside shots to beat Sparty.
Hitting threes early allows for better offensive flow, plus it gets the crowd up and off its feet. I also think there is a psychological barrier that teams wrestle with then they don't see the ball go through the hoop early, and that's got to be a wrestling match Wisconsin finds a way to win tomorrow.
I know it's a polarizing final key so I won't elaborate any more, but Wisconsin's great start to the year was due in large part to its outside shooting. Ben Brust, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky... let it fly, and let's hope many "Straight on, straight in" calls from Matt Lepay follow suit.
Prediction: I just can't see Wisconsin losing its fourth consecutive home game-I just can't. The Badgers will play with more urgency than they have all year, and I think they emerge victorious. Wisconsin 75, Michigan State 68.