Thanks to a wonky Big Ten schedule, #RealRivals Michigan State and Wisconsin square off for the first, and only, time in the 2016-17 season today.
These Big Ten titans have had some epic showdowns in the past, and considering all that is on the line — MSU looking to add its biggest win of the year on Senior Day, Wisconsin trying to right the ship after losing three of their last four — we could be in for another one.
Will it be the Badgers getting back to the top of the conference or the Spartans essentially locking down their place in the Big Dance?
- Record: 22-6 (11-4 Conference / 5-4 Road)
- Best Win: @ Minnesota (RPI: 15), 78-76 (OT)
- Worst Loss: @ Ohio State (RPI: 72), 73-83
Last Five Games
- 2/23 — @ Ohio State, L 73-83
- 2/19 — vs #23 Maryland, W 71-60
- 2/16 — @ Michigan, L 58-64
- 2/12 — vs Northwestern, L 59-66
- 2/9 — @ Nebraska, W 70-69 (OT)
As a program, Wisconsin has had an incredibly impressive run over the last three seasons. They made the Final Four in 2014, lost to Duke in the championship in 2015 and made the Sweet Sixteen a year ago despite longtime coach Bo Ryan retiring suddenly midseason. After losing zero key contributors, the Badgers appeared prime for a huge 2016-17 season, starting the year as a the #9 team in the land.
They haven’t slipped too far and are still right around the top of the conference, but what was billed as another Final Four-type season hasn’t been backed up on the court. Greg Gard’s team had a chance to add some marquee wins in the non-conference, and did beat then-#22, now-bubble-team Syracuse, but lost by double-digits to their other two ranked opponents Creighton and North Carolina.
The Big Ten slate has been an even wilder ride, especially of late. They started conference play 10-1, with their only loss coming at Purdue, but were taken to overtime by Minnesota, Rutgers and Nebraska during that stretch. Every season has its bumps, nothing to see here, right?
Well, over the last four games, the pendulum has swung away from Wisconsin. Losses to a tournament-bound Northwestern and a red-hot Michigan can be forgiven with a little fuzzy accounting, but the 10-point loss at Ohio State is concerning, especially because of how non-existent the frontcourt of Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ were.
The duo combined for only 11 points on 11 shots, well below their combined season average of nearly 28. If these two aren’t making play Wisconsin is in trouble, even with Bronson Koenig going off for 27.
Badgers To Know
Naturally, the Badgers two best players, Hayes and Happ, are the type of multi-faceted forwards that Michigan State has had trouble with all season. Hayes seems like he’s been around for a decade, so let’s talk about Happ.
The 6’10” forward came out of nowhere last year, when he averaged 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds as a freshman but has managed to improve on those already impressive numbers in his sophomore campaign. Happ leads the team in all three major offensive categories with 14.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. Were it not for Caleb Swanigan, he would be a serious candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, especially when you consider his versatility on both ends of the court (1.1 blocks and 2.1 steals per game).
The good news? Happ isn’t an outside shooting threat and hasn’t attempted a three in his career. This is particularly important because Nick Ward will draw first duty defensively and for as many things as he does well, Puddin’ is out of his element defending on the perimeter. He will have to stay out of foul trouble, because Happ could go to work on Kenny Goins who will already have his hands full with guys like 6’8” 235-pound Vitto Brown.
How Does MSU Match Up
This senior day will be bittersweet for the Spartans after losing one of their own, Eron Harris, just last week. His replacement’s Senior Day might be four years away, but his chance to make a huge impact is upon him. Of course, I’m referring to Josh Langford.
Langford, a five star recruit from Alabama, has had the smallest contribution of all the four freshmen, but if his first game post-Harris is any indication (17 points, 5 rebounds), that figures to change in a big way.
It’s not just that he put up a career-high scoring line, but the way he did it was what should stand out. He was aggressive and assertive with the ball, taking 12 shots and getting to the free throw line for seven attempts, both career highs. If there is one thing this MSU team needs — besides a last-minute 7-footer transferring in — it’s another guard who will do what Alvin Ellis has done and become and aggressive shot taker.
Too often have MSU’s guards gotten the ball, looked around and passed without taking more than a dribble, essentially serving as glorified decoys. For a team with so many flaws, that is no bueno. Langford, despite his old man gait, is a plus athlete who can help fix the offense not only by looking for his shot but by hitting the glass from the wing, where he should (I’d bet will) be a plus rebounder for his position.
It didn’t happen the way anyone had hoped, but Josh has the chance to have a huge impact on this team. With only three regular season conference games remaining, he can’t waste a minute.
At first glance, you’d think Wisconsin should win this game somewhat handily.
The Badgers have the size, experience and hunger, especially after just getting embarrassed in Columbus. The Big Ten crown is still in sight and they have a roster capable of getting them back to at least the Sweet 16.
But don’t sleep on MSU here. The Spartans actually match up fairly well in the frontcourt with Ward on Happ, and Bridges on Hayes. Plus, Brown is really the only big that plays anything resembling significant bench minutes for the Badgers and Goins has faced tougher opponents (ahem, Isaac Haas). On the perimeter, it’s basically Koenig and three-point specialist Zak Showalter, who is in a 4-for-13 (30.7%) slump in his last four games.
As evidenced by Happ and Hayes being tied for the team lead the team in assists at 2.9 per game, the Badgers do not share the ball well. It’s a ton of iso, which means if their big three aren’t rolling, they don’t have a natural offense to create easy looks. If (and this is a big if) MSU can slow Koenig down, they’ll force a lot of tough situations for Wisconsin and throw them off their game.
Finally, for as much motivation as Wisconsin has, MSU should have just as much. It’s Senior Day and a chance to add their best win of the season to the resume and take a major step towards their 20th straight tournament berth. If the game against Nebraska showed anything, it’s that when they get locked in, good things happen for the Spartans. It’s hard to imagine Tom Izzo not getting them ready for this huge opportunity.
It’s close throughout, but MSU wins one for Eron.