No matter what happens Thursday night at the Breslin Center, Wisconsin will always point to its first meeting with Michigan State as the turning point of the season. The Badgers' aggressiveness, confidence and outside shooting have soared during a seven-game winning streak that started when UW toppled Michigan State in Madison under the weight of a 29-for-36 performance at the free throw line.
As of today, Wisconsin (16-9, 8-4 Big Ten) sits alone in fourth place in the conference standings, a half-game above the Spartans (21-5, 8-5), who have rebounded from their own mini-slump. After a three-game losing streak, MSU has beaten Maryland, Michigan and Indiana at home as do-it-all senior Denzel Valentine has regained his Player of the Year form. Two other injuries hang over Tom Izzo's crew right now, but with the help of a deep bench, Badger fans probably won't even notice a difference.
Today we tabbed the managing editor over at The Only Colors, Joe Tuohey, to give us the Spartan perspective on this highly anticipated rematch -- which is a coin flip to be either a three-point shooting contest or an old-fashioned rock fight.
B5Q: What more can you say about Denzel Valentine after his 30-point, 13-assist performance in the V-Day massacre over Indiana? Are you worried that his injury earlier this season might cost him a national POY award or does it actually strengthen his case?
The Only Colors (Joe): Not much, really. I've been bullish on Denzel since he was a freshman; you could see the Draymond Green-esque qualities in his game, just in a smaller package. He's still sometimes frustrating to watch, as he can take some bad shots and try to do just a little too much, but I wouldn't trade him for anybody.
That's a nice lead-in for National POY. I think he's got to be in the conversation, but Buddy Hield is absolutely deserving, too. I don't think the injury has much effect either way, since it was clear how much MSU missed him. I think a lot depends on how this team, with Valentine as the locomotive, does in both year-end tournaments.
B5Q: Former walk-on Kenny Goins had played sporadically for Michigan State this season, but suffered a knee injury. Explain what MSU loses with him out of the lineup -- is this a significant blow? What's the big man rotation like these days?
TOC: Kenny Goins is a (former) walk-on who has carved out a role as a versatile defender at power forward. MSU can run two bigs, with Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis, and Gavin Schilling all in the fold. Unfortunately that can cause some mismatches with stretchier 4's. MSU can also go small, with Marvin Clark or Javon Bess at power forward; this causes mismatches in the other direction. Goins was the goldilocks big man: not too big or too small.
You would think that Nigel Hayes is sort of the perfect example of a player MSU could use Goins to defend. Unfortunately, Goins didn't have a great game in Madison, with just two fouls to show for his 14 minutes. You might see another walk-on (Colby Wollenman) come in if foul trouble begins or if MSU struggles quite a bit with Hayes. Goins was also generally a non-factor offensively.
B5Q: The Michigan State offense has been so prolific thanks to its three-point shooting, ranking fourth in the country at 42.3 percent from deep. Yet many people still think of the Spartans as a physical, grinding offensive team. Is this a simple case of Tom Izzo adapting to his personnel or has MSU slowly adapted its philosophy to the changing times?
TOC: I don't think that being a good three-point shooting team and being a physical team are mutually exclusive! As you point out, MSU sort of has it both ways. Bryn Forbes, Denzel Valentine, Eron Harris, and Matt McQuaid are all terrific three-point shooters, but this team still rebounds the ball exceptionally well (top-20 in rebounding percentages on both sides) and can defend quite well, too.
I think that the evolution of MSU basketball you're seeing this season in particular has roots going all the way back to Raymar Morgan playing at power forward almost a decade ago. Izzo's been adapting to his personnel and also the tides of the game for a long time now.
More Opponent Q&A
More Opponent Q&A
B5Q: Looking back, I bet MSU fans can understand losses to Iowa and even Wisconsin, but what the heck happened against Nebraska -- in East Lansing -- during that three-game slide in January? It looks like an off shooting night for the Spartans, but is there anything other teams might be able to pick up from that game? For instance, what enabled the Cornhuskers to shoot so well inside the arc against the underrated Spartan defense?
TOC: This is absolutely going to fall into the #Excuses category, but MSU completely overreacted to the loss to Wisconsin and went so passive defensively that Shavon Shields was able to slash his way to 12-for-17 from inside the arc. Credit Shields, too -- he made some tough shots -- but it wasn't until the Maryland game that MSU re-calibrated the defensive aggressiveness correctly. Since that Nebraska game, only Purdue has eclipsed one point-per-possession against this MSU defense.
B5Q: Izzo has been using a deep bench this season, somewhat necessitated by injuries. Guys like Alvin Ellis can pop in for a few minutes and spark the team on any given night. Who are reserves for Badger fans to be keeping an eye on? Also, is Tum Tum Nairns going to be full strength?
TOC: Part of the problem, too, is just that there are so many playable guys on this roster; probably 14 or 15 guys are functional Big Ten players. Tum Tum still isn't completely over his Plantar Faciitis, but will likely be playing spot duty just to relieve Denzel for a few minutes.
As far as reserves go, Gavin Schilling and Matt McQuaid are the most important at this point. Matt McQuaid is a freshman guard who will sometimes run the point, but is mostly useful for his three-point shooting ability and generally aggressive defense. I assume that in a few years he and Ethan Happ will be the Big Ten's top villains. Gavin Schilling is a junior big man who will likely be thrown at Nigel Hayes. Schilling's got a little bit of a post-game, too, but his role offensively is mostly as a garbage-collector.
Alvin Ellis has been more involved in the past few games. Ellis is best in transition and has some potential as a three-and-d type, but his game still needs to mature. With Goins out, I imagine we'll see Marvin Clark and/or Javon Bess as well. Those two are more perimeter-oriented forwards.
B5Q: On paper, Michigan State holds the edge nearly across the board, but I'm sure Spartan fans will be paying attention to the foul count for both sides. What's the difference in this game? Care to make a prediction?
TOC: I'll probably regret saying this, but I'm pretty confident in MSU in this game. In the intangibles column, I think MSU is going to be out for revenge after the close loss in Madison. MSU just seems to be firing on all cylinders since the loss to Nebraska.
I also can't imagine that Wisconsin will achieve the free throw disparity they achieved in Madison, where the Badgers had 29 free throws, and just 21 field goals.
MSU 75 - Wisconsin 60
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.