The Badgers have seen an intriguing start of the season, as they lost two games early to Tennessee and Providence, but bounced back with wins over Virginia, SMU, and Marquette, which led to Wisconsin earning the No. 23 spot in the AP Top 25 this season.
The Spartans, on the other hand, began the season inside the top five of the AP Top 25, but have endured losses to James Madison, Duke, and Arizona, keeping them at 4-3 thus far.
Ahead of tonight’s matchup, I answered several questions about the start of the season for the Badgers, courtesy of our friends at The Only Colors covering the Spartans.
Q: Let’s start with the big picture for the Badgers. Last year you finished 17-14, but only 9-11 in the Big Ten. You go to the NIT and make it to the semifinals. What were the feelings about the Badgers basketball program going into this season? Where were expectations being set for what would constitute a successful season in 2023-24?
A: This season, there’s a much better feeling around the program after last year’s disappointing season, as Wisconsin brought in a trio of transfers and transfer A.J. Storr. The biggest issue last season was the team’s depth and lack of overall scorers, which has changed with the incoming players. As a result, the expectations likely involve a top-five finish in the Big Ten.
Q: You have a pair of freshmen in your rotation, John Blackwell and Nolan Winter. What have they brought to the team so far? Do either of them seem like they could grow into strong pieces for the Badgers that opposing B1G fan bases will come to despise playing against?
A: Blackwell has immediately jumped into a prominent role, serving as Wisconsin’s sixth man and coming into the scene early as a freshman. Blackwell has been a key contributor on both ends of the court. Offensively, he’s shot 50 percent from three to begin the season, primarily serving as a catch-and-shoot three-point shooter. Additionally, he’s been aggressive with the ball in his hands, which has led to 29 free throws, good for third on the team. Defensively, Blackwell’s intensity has been a pleasant addition to Wisconsin’s group of guards. He seems primed for a good career with the Badgers.
Winter has seen some fluctuations with his minutes, but the results have been positive thus far. Like Blackwell, Winter has carved out a role in Greg Gard’s rotation, as he’s seen nearly ten minutes a contest. Winter has gone through some growing pains, as he’s still coming into his frame, while teams have occasionally picked on him in pick-and-rolls. But, Winter has a nice shooting stroke, although he’s looked a little passive at times with the ball in his hands. Still, he provides good depth and projects as the potential center of the future for the Badgers.
Q: Wisconsin seems to be shooting it at a good rate this year from all levels. Rebounding, on the other hand, has been an issue. What can MSU do to affect your shooting percentage in this game? Why is your team struggling to collect rebounds?
A: The Badgers have been pretty efficient in 2023, shooting much better around the rim and getting to the free throw line at a high clip. Wisconsin has struggled at times when it becomes too fixated on the three-point line, which has related to some of their streaks, but also their slumps, as they’ve shot only 30 percent from three. By forcing the looks to the outside, Michigan State could gain an advantage over the Badgers and cause some issues offensively. Rebounding-wise, Wisconsin ranks 12th in the Big Ten with 34.1 a game, but that number has to do more with their pace, as they lead the conference in rebounds allowed at 27.8, which is by far the lowest mark. Wisconsin also gets 12 offensive rebounds a game, which leads to their control of the pace and disparity with rebounds.
Q: AJ Storr is your leading scorer. Where is he getting most of his points? How should MSU defend him?
A: Storr has been the high-volume threat that the Badgers have looked for offensively after struggling in that department last season. Storr has primarily focused on attacking the basket to score, although he isn’t afraid to shoot it at any distance. Storr’s go-to shot is his fadeaway from the post. The sophomore is still finding ways to be more efficient, which we saw in two of the last three games, as Storr is going off of two feet more and going up stronger. Michigan State should look to potentially apply pressure, as Storr hasn’t showcased the consistency of being a passer from the post yet, while also looking to keep him away from the free throw line, where he’s connected at a high percent.
Q: What is the most important thing that Wisconsin needs to do in order to get the win against the Spartans?
A: In this matchup, it comes down to the free throw line. Michigan State allows over 20 free throw attempts a game, which is the worst mark in the Big Ten. Wisconsin hasn’t been much better in the foul category, allowing 18.6 free throws a game. This one likely comes down to which team is the more disciplined one, and Wisconsin has shot nearly 10 percent better at the free throw line than Michigan State this season. If the Badgers continue to attack and get to the free throw line, it bodes well for their offense, but they must be disciplined as well. The good sign? Wisconsin has allowed 14 free throws or less in three of their last four games.
Q: Game Prediction?
A: Over their tough three game stretch, I thought the Badgers would go 1-2 with a win over Michigan State. Prediction: Wisconsin 72, Michigan State 68.