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Return of the Badgers: Wisconsin - Michigan State Preview


ONLINE RADIO STREAM: Spartan Sports Network

This is normally where I'd open with the dramatic enemy-at-the-gates introduction of the Wisconsin Badgers, playing on every MSU fan's mixture of fear and loathing toward our plodding yet lethal adversaries to the west and their disturbingly Palpatine-like coach. But this may be one time when the desired outcome is a more important consideration than the opponent. Few games are truly "must-win" and, with 14 other conference games still remaining, this one doesn't qualify either. But it's pretty close. After dropping a game at Penn State that most expected them to win, it is more important than ever for the Spartans to protect their home court, especially with extremely tough road games at Illinois and Purdue coming up. If MSU loses to Wisconsin, they face the real and unpleasant possibility of a 3-4 start to conference play, something we've not seen since 2003.

Wisconsin comes in with a 12-3 record (2-1 conference) including losses at UNLV and Illinois and a neutral court loss to Notre Dame. Their best win is probably a road victory over Marquette. They sit at number 9 in Pomeroy's rankings and in the current polls they are #20 in the AP and #21 in the Coaches'. Pomeroy sees the game as basically a coin-flip, with MSU favored at home in a projected 61-60, 59-possession game. Despite MSU's dismal 5-15 record in the last 20 against Wisconsin, the Badgers have not won in the Breslin Center since 2004, with Bo Ryan having a career 2-5 record in East Lansing. The last meeting with Wisconsin is one we would all rather forget, as the Badgers came out firing in the Kohl Center and never looked back, ending MSU's perfect 9-0 conference start, with Kalin Lucas getting injured in the process, beginning a downward plunge that saw the Spartans lose 3 in a row.

The latest edition of Bo Ryan's seemingly interchangeable system teams features two stars, PF/C Jon Leuer and PG Jordan Taylor, and a supporting cast of only about 4 other guys who see significant minutes. The exact profile of Bo Ryan's teams does vary somewhat from year to year, but several things remain constant: they play at one of the slowest paces in Division I basketball (59.1 possessions per game, dead last in the country), they hold on to the ball like it was a newborn child (13.8 TO%, best in the country), they rarely foul (29.2 opp FTR, 39th nationally) or force turnovers (19.5 opp TO%, 229th in country), play aggressive man-to-man defense and never get beat down the court. Details after the jump.

When Wisconsin Has the Ball

Although Bo Ryan has the reputation of being the ultimate system coach, to the point where it is often only half-jokingly asserted that it makes no difference who his players are, he has actually shown himself to be rather flexible when it comes to the strengths of his particular set of talents at a given time. Consider the following graph:


When they had guys like Sharif Chambliss and Clayton Hanson firing up threes and nobody but Mike Wilkinson on the offensive boards they were a classic perimeter-oriented-team. During the Brian Butch/Joe Krabbenhoft years they stopped jacking up the threes and went after the offensive boards. This year and last they're back closer to where they were in 2005. Although the OReb% this year is pretty high (36.6%) the Badgers have been known to change their stripes in conference play and, in fact, they are only rebounding at a 21.7% rate on the offensive glass in three conference games so far.

This is one of the years where the offense is actually outshining the defense, behind a Big Ten POY-caliber year from Leuer. They rank 8th nationally (2nd in the Big Ten) in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency. This year's team, similar to last, is a perimeter-oriented team. This basically means they take jumpshots, especially threes, on offense, and have a low turnover rate. Ryan's trademark swing offense is normally designed to get the ball into the post for an easy score or foul shots (see here for a good analysis). And Leuer has certainly been doing his share of this. But it's also structured to set up screens and kickouts for jump-shots, which has been more Wisconsin's MO this year. They have been absolutely deadly from beyond the arc this year, hitting 37.6% of their numerous threes - over 41% of their field goal attempts. Michigan State has been pretty ordinary defending the three this year and they will need to make defensive adjustments to keep Wisconsin from getting easy looks from outside. They've held 4 of their last 5 opponents below 31% and will need another effort like to this to keep Wisconsin close.

Jon Leuer is the main scorer and he's a good one. He's got an offensive rating of 123 on a usage rate of 28.4%. This is impressive. He's got a shooting line of .485/.468/.806 (2pt%/3pt%/FT%) and, as if that weren't enough, he's one of the best defensive rebounders in the country (22.3 DR%). I expect Delvon Roe will draw the primary defensive assignment on Leuer and he will have his hands full keeping him out of the paint and coming out on him to the three-point line. He'll need help inside from Nix, Sherman and Payne and help outside from anyone he can get.

The progression of Jordan Taylor from his freshman year has been remarkable. He's gone from a guy whose numbers wouldn't keep anyone on the court to an all-Big Ten caliber point guard. He has a phenomenal 4.24 assist-to-turnover ratio and his weakness last year, shooting, has become a strength with a terrific .480/.390/.871 shooting line. When the shot clock winds down, as it often does in this offense, he specializes in driving and kicking to get a good shot without turning it over.

Most of the rest of the Badgers are role players, with only Keaton Nankivil, Mike Bruesewitz, Tim Jarmusz and Josh Gasser playing more than a third of the available minutes and none of them over a 20% usage rate. Nankivil can hurt you, from inside or out, if you leave him to deal with Leuer. Gasser has been a good two-point shooter and Jarmusz and Bruesewitz fill in as needed.

When Michigan State Has the Ball

They need to try to hang on to it. The key to beating Wisconsin is to limit the number of chances they get to score. You're not likely to do this by forcing turnovers so you'd be well advised to limit your own. Wisconsin may not play as much for the offensive boards, but they are annually one of the most tenacious defensive rebounding teams in the country. Their game on defense is to play tight man-to-man while avoiding fouls, force tough, contested 2-point shots (16th in the country in opposition 2pt%) and crash the defensive glass.

Wisconsin's defensive weakness is probably 3-point defense. Opponents are hitting a healthy 36.6% of their three-point looks against the Badgers. Durrell Summers, Kalin Lucas, Keith Appling, et al. will need to hit some of these shots early and often to loosen things up inside. And if they can get it inside, they'll need to hit free throws. MSU has plummeted to an awful 65% free-throw percentage. The one time the Badgers will foul is to prevent an easy dunk or layup.

Keys to the game

  • Turnovers: MSU must limit the number of extra chances they give Wisconsin to score. Wisconsin thrives on getting more chances to score than their opponents and unforced turnovers play right into their hands. They play a no-foul brand of defense that doesn't net a lot of forced turnovers so MSU will need to keep from shooting themselves in the foot.
  • Rebounding: I expect Wisconsin to be relentless on the defensive glass and permissive on the offensive. If the offensive rebounding percentages are close to equal or even in the Badgers' favor, that's a bad, bad sign for the Spartans.
  • Shooting: Wisconsin is probably going to get more shooting possessions than MSU, either from the field or the line. It will be critical for the Spartans to shoot well themselves and to force the Badgers into tough shots, especially on the perimeter. 3-point percentage should be a critical barometer of how this one is going.

A typical Big Ten game where the first team to 50 wins will be fine with me, as long as that team is Michigan State. Get ready for another battle.