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Michigan State Spartans Men’s Basketball Preview: Badger hunting in Wisconsin

The Spartans look to get back on track against the impressive No. 8 Badgers.

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Wisconsin v Maryland
Sophomore Johnny Davis will get the ball versus MSU, a lot!
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans will look to bounce back after suffering the team’s first conference loss at home against Northwestern, and MSU couldn’t have picked a much tougher game to get back on track. A trip to Madison facing the Wisconsin Badgers is never easy, particularly not when those guys up there are putting together one hell of a season. Here’s all you need to know for the upcoming game:

Game Information

When: Jan. 21, 2022, 9:00 p.m. ET

Where: Kohl Center, Madison, Wisconsin


The state of Wisconsin’s program

Whoever thought that the horror series of “The Badger” would run out of sequels after Bo Ryan called it a career — from an opponent’s perspective — was sadly mistaken. Greg Gard has taken over the director’s seat as head coach and is churning out some typical Dairyland blockbusters along the way. Gard took over midway through the 2015-2016 season after Ryan stepped down and basically has continued a lot of the things his predecessor and longtime mentor did.

Outside of a bad 2017-2018 campaign in which the Badgers finished ninth in the Big Ten and with a negative overall record, he had his short-legged omnivores in the Big Dance every year and even won a shared Big Ten title in 2020. The Badgers were never really challenging for national glory, though, outside of two Sweet 16 appearances (maybe it was the short legs!) but it seems that this year’s team could take that step forward.

Wisconsin v Maryland
Is that Bo Ryan over there? No, it’s Greg Gard.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Other than that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Gard. There were rumors throughout the years that he struggled a bit in recruiting with certain names, most notably the Hauser boys (Joey and Sam). Last year, a report also surfaced about a leaked recording of a secret meeting where numerous seniors openly confronted Gard about his relationship with the team. Apparently, those were a very emotional 37 minutes, and afterward Gard apologized and took quite a bit of blame. Considering how well this season is going, though, it is hard to put too much into the whole episode or some rumors other than that Gard knows how to get his team ready to play no matter what. For a man in his position it’s also mighty impressive to actually self reflect and accept criticism openly, and it seems that it has helped him tremendously with this year’s group.

How Wisconsin is doing this season

The Badgers are doing pretty damn well, actually! Wisconsin is 15-2 on the season and has accumulated some mighty impressive wins along the way. The Badgers have beaten Houston (No. 7 in KenPom), Ohio State (No. 23 in KenPom) and they’ve went into Mackey and took slayed Purdue’s massive dragon on the road (No. 4 in KenPom). Wisconsin’s only two losses were against a good Providence team (No. 50 in KenPom) without Johnny Davis, and against Ohio State in Columbus, a loss as mentioned before the’ve already avenged. In short, this edition of the Badgers has only lost one contest at full strength, is a legitimate top-10 team and sits pretty safely among the favorites for the Big Ten title. Wisconsin currently ranks 25th overall in KenPom (one spot behind Michigan State at No. 24).

Projected Starting Lineup

PG Chucky Hepburn (Fr., 6-2, 211 pounds, 6.8 points, 2.0 assists, 34.0% FG, 28.3% 3P FG)

SG Brad Davison (Sr., 6-4, 202 pounds, 15.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 39.6% FG, 35.1% 3P)

SG Johnny Davis (So., 6-5, 196 pounds, 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 44.1% FG, 36.2% 3P)

PF Tyler Wahl (Jr., 6-9, 220 pounds, 10.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 52.0% FG, 9.5% 3P)

C Steven Crowl (So., 7-0, 217 pounds, 8.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 47.8% FG, 32.4% 3P)

Key Reserves

C Chris Vogt (Sr., 7-1, 260 pounds)

G Lorne Bowman (Fr., 6-2, 180 pounds)

What to expect from Wisconsin

The hungriest Badger this season is clearly sophomore guard Johnny Davis, who is having an all-world type of year for Wisconsin. He is averaging 22.1 points per game and was responsible for one of the most impressive individual performances in all of college basketball this season when he scored 37 points against Matt Painter’s highly-ranked Boilermakers (after already scoring 30 points against Houston).

Davis has made a huge leap from last year when he averaged just 7.0 points per game and is clearly the be-all and end-all for Wisconsin’s offense. He is a long guard, very bouncy and has a quick, long first step. He is extremely active, has a high running motor and rebounds extremely well for his size (especially offensively). While he isn’t the greatest ball handler, he has a variety of moves, a strong mid-range game, can operate in the post and loves to drive aggressively to the basket. His impressive year is punctuated by strong, active defense, a team-first attitude and some big time performances in clutch situations. He isn’t a particularly great shooter (his motion looks a bit odd, especially his off-hand), but he can easily get hot from downtown as well.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The problem with Davis being a true star this year is that the rest of Wisconsin is still doing a lot of Wisconsin things, too. Yes, that includes our honorable friend Mr. Brad Davison, who as you might have furiously realized in the projected starting lineup, is still active for the Badgers. With a seemingly 20th year under his belt (OK, he’s really now in his fifth year with the program), he has become even more of the player he used to be — a stingy defender who gets under your skin, plus a guy who can present you some real problems from deep range.

While the quiet and more reserved-acting Davis might be the engine of Wisconsin’s team, Davison could be the Badgers’ loud exhaust. Outside of him, Wisconsin completes its starting lineup with fairly flat-footed, but damn solid bigs with good fundamentals (Wahl & Crowl), and a young, inexperienced point guard who isn’t hurting the team too much with his inexperience (Hepburn). The rotation is short, no one outside the starters averages much more than three points per game even though Detroit freshman guard Lorne Bowman has hit 10 of his 19 three point attempts. They taught him well in the beautiful state of Michigan, eh! Center Chris Vogt is the other player off of the bench who gets regular playing time.

Looking at the numbers the Badgers also rely on some of the traditional stables of their program, even if they are operating with a younger team than usual (only one senior starting). The Badgers barely, if ever, turn the ball over (just 8.2 turnovers per game), they play fundamentally-sound defense without committing too many mistakes or beating themselves much and share the ball at all five positions. Wisconsin also plays a traditionally slower pace, but here is where it gets interesting. Gard is letting this year’s group play a little more loose and a bit quicker (which certainly fits Johnny Davis‘ game) than usual, and other than taking care of the ball or drawing fouls (yuck!), the Badgers really don’t do many things particularly well. Wisconsin actually shoots the ball worse than its opponents (42.0 percent vs 43.1 percent) and is fairly similar in rebounding rate. Now due to the team’s low turnover numbers, these things don’t really affect the overall results so far, but they bear watching.

Individually, though, the Badgers can make up for a lot of their supposedly shortcomings. Davis can score from anywhere, and in many ways, even though he prefers the left side of the court. Wisconsin loves to go into the post where all of its big men, and especially Wahl, have a nice-rounded game attacking with both hands. The Badgers spread the floor nicely with Crowl being a three-point threat from the center position, and actually attack the paint way more than former Wisconsin teams have done. Playing the Badgers straight up can be a challenge and if a defense rotates, UW does a good job of exploiting weaknesses and mismatches immediately.

Key matchup: Max Christie/Gabe Brown vs. Brad Davison/Johnny Davis

The wings is where the meat should be in this game. Wisconsin’s best scorers by far are Davison and Davis and if Brown and Christie don’t show up it’s going to be a long night for the Spartans. Physically and in terms of athleticism, though, Michigan State could definitely match-up well with those two Badgers, and it could be interesting how Davis fares against two guys who are taller than him and may even be more athletic, too. Either way, while MSU has the advantage at the point and in the post, the Spartans on the wing can’t lose their matchup too badly.

Enjoy the game! GO GREEN!