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Star players? Who needs star players? MSU-Wisconsin Preview

9:00 P.M. (ET), TUESDAY
ENEMY BLOGS: Bucky's 5th Quarter, Hoops Marinara, Badgercentric

So tell me if this is about right:

Take a team that went 10-8 in Big Ten play in 2009, subtract the team's leading scorer and leading rebounder (two different guys), add two freshman role players playing a combined 21.1 minutes per game, and you get . . . a team that starts the season 13-3 overall and 3-1 in conference play.

Now go ahead and knock the team's new star out with an injury--a guy who had emerged as the team's second leading scorer, top rebounder, and a legitimate contender for the conference player of the year.  Now, of course, you have . . . a team that still managed to win 3 of 5 games to find itself in a second-place tie in the Big Ten standings.

My point?  The Wisconsin basketball team, as coached by Bo Ryan, defies rational analysis.  But we'll give it a shot anyways.

Since losing Jon Leuer to a left-wrist injury in a win over Purdue, Wisconsin has slowed things down even more than usual, playing 5 games at 61 possessions or fewer.  And, without a big man on the bench to pick up Leuer's minutes, the Badgers have joined the ranks of the league's perimeter-oriented teams.  Sophomore guard Jordan Taylor has started playing major minutes--36 or more in 4 of the 5 games--and has posted 51 points and 23 assists, vs. just 2 (!) turnovers, in that span.  As a team, Wiscosin has taken no fewer than 23 three-pointers in each of the 5 games.

For the most part, the approach has been successful.  The Badgers have beaten Northwestern (on the road), Michigan, and Penn State (in OT) and lost to Ohio State and Purdue.  Both the losses came on the road--no shame there.

It's helped that only-remaining-big-man Keaton Nankivil has become a more productive threat for the Badgers.  Nankivil has increased his scoring output in each of the last 5 games, culminating in a 25-point (on 7-8 three-point shooting) outburst in Wisconsin's narrow loss in West Lafayette. Jason Bohannon, meanwhile. has struggled to get good looks from beyond the arc with Leuer out, shooting just 7-29 on 3-point attempts over the 5 games.

As always, the key on defense against Wisconsin is good position defense against the swing offense to avoid giving up good looks near the basket, fouling and giving the Badgers chances to score at the line, and/or (even more so than usual) leaving 3-point shooters open on the weak side.  Wisconsin doesn't turn the ball over (15.4%) or crash the glass on offense (29.5%), so it all comes down to preventing quality scoring opportunities.

Trevon Hughes has had to take on more of the offense of late, taking 15+ shots from the field in the four games prior to the Purdue loss.  He may get something of the Manny Harris treatment, with multiple MSU defenders taking turns trying to keep him from getting in a rhythm.

Defensively, Wisconsin has been fairly average since losing Leuer, allowing 4 of 5 opponents to hit the point-per-possession mark.  Oddly, in light of Wisconsin missing its top shot-blocking threat, opponents have been most efficient from 3-point range--with those 4 opponents all making at least 40.0% of their 3-point attempts.  This would be a good time for Chris Allen to find his shooting touch--and for Kalin Lucas (7-15 from 3-point range over the last 3 games) to keep things going from outside.

On the season, the Badgers' defensive strengths lie in preventing good 2-point looks (43.7%), particularly on offensive putbacks.  Wisconsin ranks first in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing their opponents to gather just 24.9% of offensive misses.

Still, with the small lineup Bo Ryan is now fielding--only one player (Nankivil) in the current rotation is bigger than 6'6", 215 pounds--you'd sure think this game is a chance for MSU to impose its will in the paint.  Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green only combined to take 9 shots from the field in MSU's win over Wisconsin in East Lansing.  I'd expect that number to go up tomorrow night.

And those two players, along with Delvon Roe and Durrell Summers, will crash the glass hard.  In a game between two teams that traditionally prevent each other from getting easy initial looks at the basket, 10-12 second-chance points could go along way toward a Spartan win.

You may be aware that it's been a while since Michigan State won in Madison.  KenPom doesn't see it happening this year, either, predicting a 65-59 Wisconsin win in a 62-possession game.  Might as well have the numbers confirm what hard experience tells us: winning on the Badgers' home court will always be an uphill battle--regardless of the state of Bo Ryan's roster.