The Big Ten Tournament has provided an opportunity for those teams who only got one shot at the Badgers in the regular season to give it the old college try one more time. And as if Wisconsin hadn't already done enough to prove it's position as the cream of the Big Ten, the Badgers (30-3, 16-2 Big Ten) have turned away those efforts one by one.
A dream rematch between the top two seeds never materialized because of Michigan State's impressive comeback against Maryland Saturday, so it will be the Spartans (23-10, 12-6) who get their own last crack at puncturing Wisconsin's armor.
Maryland, the only team to beat Wisconsin in the last 16 games, raced out to a 23-7 lead against MSU in the second semifinal yesterday, led by freshman Melo Trimble's 13 points in the first seven minutes. But the Spartans roared back after halftime mostly by keeping Trimble from another score until the final minutes.
By virtue of the 62-58 win, No. 3 Michigan State advances to face No. 1 seed Wisconsin, a rematch of last season's Big Ten championship game which the Spartans won rather convincingly.
Wisconsin has made its final push for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament count, taking advantage of losses by Duke and Virginia this weekend to put it in good position if the Badgers add a Big Ten tournament title to its resume. Many media outlets such as CBS and ESPN already have proclaimed Wisconsin is in the driver's seat, but not everyone is convinced.
The Badgers have closed out halves and games nicely this season, and that ability was again on display at the United Center Saturday when UW ran away from Purdue in the second half. Wisconsin finally came alive toward the end of the first half and when the Boilermakers went cold, the Badgers pounced. Their defensive intensity picked up noticeably and that led to easy buckets in transition.
Frank Kaminsky, in particular, showed off his defensive quickness to shut down A.J. Hammons in the second half, wreaking havoc for Purdue's offensive game plan. The Badgers finished with five blocked shots and five steals on the day, compared to only three turnovers.
Bronson Koenig was also a killer late in the shot clock, finishing with a career-best 19 points.
His closest counterpart in Sunday's title bout is Michigan State senior Travis Trice, whose three-point shooting was the only thing keeping the Spartans afloat early on against the Terps. Trice finished with 20 points, while Branden Dawsen added 17.
However Matt Costello had another nice game, quietly adding 10 points off the bench and giving Michigan State some threat of an inside game. The junior will have to have an even bigger game if MSU is to derail the Wisconsin machine. He played admirably against Kaminsky in game one, though starter Gavin Schilling struggled -- and continues to struggle of late.
Wisconsin 68, Michigan State 61, March 1 in Madison
This was a gigantic win for Wisconsin to start the month, coming off an upset loss at Maryland and subsequent nightmare getting home due to mechanical problems with their plane and less-than-ideal lodging situation. But the Badgers were resiliant.
Behind Kaminsky's season-high 31 points, which likely sewed up his National Player of the Year honors in retrospect, Wisconsin close the first half strong to take an 11-point lead into halftime and never looked back. Despite shooting poorly from the outside, UW hammered the shorter Spartans inside and on the glass. Wisconsin shot 61 percent on two-point field goals and out-rebounded MSU 35-24 overall. Oddly enough, Nigel Hayes was the only other Badger to score in double-figures that days.
On the Spartan end, Branden Dawson had a terrible outing, though it turned out his young son was admitted to the hospital the day before. Cleveland State transfer Bryan Forbes was hot, going 5-for-5 from three-point land en route to 21 points, but Wisconsin was simply too imposing on the interior.
Tom Izzo's teams are known for peaking in March and this year's team has reeled off four straight big wins over Purdue, Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland since losing in Madison. However, the Spartans are still flawed. They have no matchup for the UW frontcourt, which is playing extremely well right now. If Michigan State cannot rediscover its three-point shooting stroke, it will have to pray that the Badgers have a terrible afternoon shooting as well.
Prediction: Badgers 65, Spartans 59