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Michigan State - Wisconsin Preview: Q&A with Bucky's 5th Quarter

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 16th, 2012, 7:00 PM EST (set your clock!)
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

Pete was able to "sit down" information-super-highway style with Phil of Bucky's 5th Quarter and this is their conversation about the rematch. If you don't recall what happened last time, here is the TOC recap.

Pete: Jordan Taylor seems to be back to his junior year self in the last few weeks. Has anything considerably changed that's spurred this improvement?

Phil: Two things spring to mind. First, Taylor's right ankle has appeared to finally be completely healthy. He can now get into the lane more easily, more like last year. Secondly, he's had to take over out of necessity. Starting out 1-3 meant it was put up or shut up time. While his averages over the first six conference games aren't all that different from the last six, he's definitely shooting better (37.8%) from deep during this latest 5-1 stretch than the first half-dozen Big Ten games (30%). He has been more consistent defensively, with at least one steal in each of the last six games, and had a fantastic 18:1 assist-to-turnover ratio over a five-game spurt.

Pete: Taylor's the best player on the Badger team, but who's the second -- Gasser, Bruesewitz, Brust, Berggren, or someone else?

Phil: This isn't a hard question for most teams, but the fact I'm picking a guy you didn't mention -- Ryan Evans -- should show you the inexperience alongside Taylor this season. Evans has proven to be a versatile defender and the team's most consistent rebounder (6.8 per game, 20.5% Def Reb %). Offensively, he is not shy about shooting. That is precisely what this group of role players needs. The problem is he's only shooting 41.5% in league play. For all their intangibles and all-around games, Josh Gasser, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz all are too inconsistent.

Pete: Despite some of the hiccups early in the Big Ten, the KenPom numbers show that Wisconsin has improved greatly on defense from last year. What have been some things you've seen that have been reasons for improvement?

Phil: The improvement is largely due to personnel. The graduating seniors were a bit soft; the rotation guys this year are more physical and have more of an edge. Berggren has a been a revelation defensively. He is much stronger in the lower body than Jon Leuer ever was so he can bang with the bigger bodies and block shots (he's #1 in conference at 2 per game). Yet he is nimble enough to steal entry passes. Evans and Gasser give Bo the ability to go big or small on opposing wings. It helps that both Berggren and Evans are fourth-year juniors, so they have Ryan's defensive help principles down by now.

Pete: Wisconsin nearly lost at Minnesota because they couldn't score a point in 8 minutes. Are offensive breakdowns the biggest weakness of this team, or is it something else?

Phil: Yeah, the offense really is the problem. With Taylor plus a band of role players, consistency has been a problem. That drought against the Gophers was an extreme example, but stuff like that has become sort of commonplace over the last few years because of UW's reliance on the outside shot. This season, the team simply cannot shoot it as well, so the offensive efficiency has dropped. Wisconsin scored a crazy 1.233 PPP last year, and it's down to 1.109 this year. That only time it's been in that same neighborhood under Bo Ryan was during the dreadful 2006 season. Wisconsin has to get to the line more during these droughts, but I see Gasser as the only guy besides Taylor who can realistically step up in that department.

Pete: You asked me to handicap the Big Ten race, now it's your turn. Put odds on MSU, UW, UM, or OSU winning the regular season.

Phil: Michigan hasn't put together a decent winning streak yet this season and I don't trust them to start now. But their schedule is pretty cush, so I wouldn't be surprised if they finish ahead of Wisconsin. The Badgers are a major darkhorse -- I see them finishing a solid 4-2 here -- because they really don't have the firepower to topple both front runners at home. Like you, I see this coming down to the final game. Not an easy stretch for MSU. Your Spartans will probably be playing for a piece of Ohio State's title in that one.

Pete: Lastly, this is the part where I ask you for obligatory keys to the game and a prediction.

Phil: Jared Berggren is the key to this game. He has be represent a threat on offense in addition to playing solid defense. There is very little depth behind Berggren, so something like foul trouble would spell doom for the Badgers as they would get killed on the boards. It will take a herculean effort from Taylor to pull out an actual victory, but having that second scorer step up gives them a chance. Also Wisconsin will need to limit Michigan State's easy opportunities in the open floor.

I think MSU takes another step toward the title with a 63-56 win.