Michigan State is back on the road Friday night looking for payback against the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin defeated MSU back on December 5 in both teams’ Big Ten opener. Much has changed for the Spartans since then. Will it be enough to win against a tough opponent on their home court? To help answer that question, we speak with Rohan Chakravarthi from Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
TOC: Wisconsin came into this season just outside the Top 25 polls and have been ranked consistently for close to two months now, following back-to-back wins over then #3 Marquette and my Spartans in the Big Ten opener. You currently are atop the Big Ten standings. What has gone right for this Badgers team? Has it exceeded Badger fans’ preseason expectations?
RC: It’s been a mixture of consistency and additional depth for Wisconsin. Last season, the Badgers did not have nine rotational players that they could trust, while there weren’t enough scorers on the team, putting too much pressure on players such as Chucky Hepburn to produce. This season, with the additions of A.J. Storr, who has evolved into Wisconsin’s top scorer, and John Blackwell, the Badgers have two players who have become regular contributors as scorers, allowing them to be more flexible with their lineups. Additionally, they’ve placed a bigger focus on attacking and getting to the free-throw line, which in return has helped with their three-point shooting. Last season, without much consistency on the inside, the Badgers were a streakier offense that relied on more perimeter scoring.
TOC: Speaking of that game against MSU in December, two Wisconsin players - AJ Storr and Steven Crowl - scored 40 of the 70 points that day. No other starter scored in double-digits. How often this season have those two had to be such a majority of the offense? What is the best way for opposing defenses to limit these two offensively?
RC: Those two have, undoubtedly, held big roles for the Badgers this season, but there have been games where others have stepped up into a leading role. Tyler Wahl and Max Klesmit have both recently had big games, while Chucky Hepburn always has the ability to become a score-first guard if he needs to be. But, Storr has become the Badgers’ top scorer after transferring in from St. John’s, while Crowl has taken another step forward in his game as a third-year starter. Storr likes to get to his spots in the post, looking for his fadeaway jumper, while Crowl has a variety of moves he’ll use while operating out of the post. The best way to limit Storr’s impact is trying to make those post touches tougher to get, while looking to potentially give extra attention defensively as he looks for that fadeaway jumper to make him less comfortable. As for Crowl, defenses have often looked to double-team the big man, although that strategy hasn’t always worked, as the seven-footer is a strong passer for his position, while Wisconsin has other options that can hit down open shots alongside him.
TOC: One area that Wisconsin struggles in is rebounding, as you are bottom three in the B1G in both offensive and defensive boards. Not surprisingly then, perhaps, you are last in blocks. Looking at your roster, you have some guys with height in Crowl, Tyler Wahl, and Nolan Winter. Why do the Badgers struggle in these categories?
RC: The Badgers’ rebounding numbers are more so a reflection of their 333rd-ranked pace out of 365 teams in the nation. With Wisconsin playing at a slower rate, their goal is to be more efficient on the offensive end, which has occurred this season, be it with field goals or fouls, leading to fewer chances for offensive rebounds. Their pace reflects on the defensive side of the ball too, as you’ll notice that Wisconsin allows the least rebounds per game in the Big Ten as well at 28.6 a game. As a result, Wisconsin is actually fourth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin per game at +5.3, ranking behind only Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State.
Now, Wisconsin does have height with Crowl, Wahl, and Winter, but you’re right: they’re not really known as a shot-blocking team. Crowl is a good rim protector, but hasn’t really ever been a big blocking machine throughout his career. Wahl is a good defender, but his value stems more from his ability to switch onto all five positions, rather than as a shot-blocker. Winter has provided some valuable depth minutes this season and likely profiles as the best shot-blocker on the team in the future, but is still building into his frame, which may take some time.
TOC: Whose individual performance this year has been the most surprising, either in a positive or negative way?
RC: It has to be freshman guard John Blackwell. The Badgers brought in a strong 2024 class with four-star forward Gus Yalden, high three-star forward Nolan Winter, and another three-star in Blackwell. Yalden has yet to play this season, while Winter has been the main backup big man. But, Blackwell has been the biggest surprise, as his game has quickly translated to the college level. Possessing a level of toughness and aggressiveness, Blackwell has usurped all of Wisconsin’s guard depth in the rotation to essentially become the sixth man for the Badgers this season. Additionally, one of the bigger question marks was how his shooting would translate and the results have been positive thus far, with Blackwell hitting 50 percent of his three-pointers, primarily coming on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Head coach Greg Gard made it an emphasis to get to the free throw line more this season, and Blackwell has significantly aided that process, shooting 62 free throws, which ranks third on the team, and converting 84 percent of those looks.
TOC: What is the one thing Wisconsin needs to do to get a second W over MSU this season?
RC: Play better defense. While the Badgers offense has been rolling as of late, their defensive marks have slowly slipped to the bottom of the Big Ten. Wisconsin has allowed opponents to shoot 45.3 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from three this season, both are which are the second-worst in the conference. They’ll face a Michigan State team that shoots 47.4 percent from the field and, more importantly, 36.2 percent from three this season when the two sides meet on Friday. Wisconsin limited the Spartans to just 57 points during the first game between the two teams this season, as the Spartans shot 45.1 percent from the field, but only 31.6 percent from three. Limiting those three-point opportunities will be key, and it starts at the top with star guard Tyson Walker.
TOC: Bonus Question: Predict the final score.
RC: I think this game is a higher-scoring game than the first one, given Wisconsin’s recent defensive struggles. I do have the Badgers winning, but anticipate a closer game than the first contest, with my score prediction being: Badgers 78, Spartans 74.
TOC: Double Bonus Question: Wisconsin is shooting a Big Ten leading (and 13th nationally) 77.7% from the FT line. Can you guys teach MSU how to shoot FTs please?
RC: Give it a year and pray for the best. It’s worked for the Badgers, who went from one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the conference to the current best.
TOC wishes to thank Rohan for contributing to another article for us. May have to get him on the payroll.