EAST LANSING - Apparently, so far this season in the Big Ten, when say W-I-S-C-O-N-S-I-N, you have said it all.
Once again, as the conference schedule hurtles toward the critical midway point, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and his Badgers are throwing a monkey wrench in the Big Ten's predictions.
While Wisconsin wasn't expected to drop to bottom-feeder status this season because of perceived point guard issues, the Badgers also weren't seen as a challenger for the conference crown either.
With impressive wins at then-No. 2 Indiana and against Illinois, when the Illini were ranked No. 12 - the Badgers blew out Illinois by 23 points - Wisconsin is serving notice that it will once again be a major player in the Big Ten title chase.
While a 70-66 loss at Iowa on Saturday may have slowed Wisconsin's momentum, nothing's changed.
Because when the Badgers (13-5, 4-1 Big Ten) host first place and No. 13 Michigan State (16-3, 5-1) at 7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN) in Madison, they will still be a team that has already served notice that they will have a large say in how the Big Ten title will be determined this season.
Led by a trio of performers who are averaging 10 or more points a game, Ryan is up to his old tricks with a team that takes care of the ball and doesn't make many mistakes - the Badgers are averaging just 8.6 turnovers a game in conference play. And Wisconsin is still that team that plays you tough on the defensive side of the ball with a physical style that can frustrate many teams if they are not patient enough to work and wait for their opportunities on offense.
"They don't turn the ball over, they're very solid, they defend the 3 very well. They're at the top of the league, they've earned it and I respect it and I know it's going to be a tough game,'' Tom Izzo said. "They just don't make many mistakes. The only way you beat them is to beat them. We've all gone through the, 'well, we beat ourselves a few games.' That happens so very seldom with them.''
Senior forward Jared Berggren the at 12.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while another senior forward, Ryan Evans, adds 11.2 points and a team-leading 7.6 rebounds a contest. Junior guard Ben Brust chips in 10.7 points a game and is the team's leading passer at three assists an outing in an offensive scheme Ryan describes as one that 'probes for the best option.'
"As far as Wisconsin goes I think everybody made a big deal about the point guard situation and rightfully so (but) now (they) have settled on (sophomore Traevon) Jackson who's done a very good job of running their team but you can't forget about the three seniors,'' Izzo said. "Those three seniors have been through the wars, and two of them are fifth year seniors. Evans is a very, very solid player, Berggren of course is a fifth-year guy that's been there along with Evans and then there's the curly-top guy (Mike Bruesewitz), he's everybody's favorite. He just plays hard, he's gotten better every year, he can shoot 3s, he can post you up. And then you've got a guy like Brust, who's a shooter.''
Although MSU won its last meeting with Wisconsin, a 65-52 decision in last year's Big Ten championship semifinals, and topped the Badgers at the Kohl Center with a 63-60 overtime victory, MSU has not had a lot of success in Madison.
Prior to last season's win at Wisconsin, which started what has become a three-game win streak against the Badgers, MSU had not won a game in Madison since 2004. And as it always seems to be when these two teams meet, there will be a lot at stake as MSU ends a stretch of five games in 13 days.
Wisconsin leads the series in Madison, 43-23 and if the Spartans are to gain any advantage for victory it will have to come in the post, where the Badgers are now seemingly short-handed.
With a two-guard, three-forward set, the Badgers are expected to be without their tallest post presence, in 6-foot-11 sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky, who is out while recovering from an eye injury.
With Kaminsky out, Wisconsin has promoted inexperienced 6-10 redshirt sophomore center Evan Anderson to take his minutes.
The Badgers' lack of depth in the post could serve MSU's post play well.
With junior forward Adreian Payne heating up after his fourth-straight game in double figures with MSU's win over Ohio State on Saturday, and senior center Derrick Nix who has been raising his game to higher levels with each outing, the Spartans could have a marked advantage in the paint on Tuesday.
That coupled with the fact that Izzo expressed the need to get more touches in the post after Saturday's win over the Buckeyes could bode well for the Spartans' mission in Madison.
Both Payne and Nix are averaging 9.4 points a game, while Payne holds the slight edge in rebounding over Nix, 7.1-6.9 boards a game.
Ryan didn't seem worried about his lack of depth down low or his team's ability to neutralize MSU's advantage in the post.
"We've played other teams over the years where they've had two bigger than average guys,'' Ryan said. "Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz have guarded big guys, so I at least feel that isn't something that they haven't seen before or that they haven't tried to do.
"Defense is about help and about not just individual matchups. Our defense has always been predicated on the synergy of the group, not just on one or two stoppers.''
Junior guard and newly-minted captain Keith Appling - who is the only Spartan on the roster that has averaged double-figure points (12.0) in his career against Wisconsin - is still the team's top point producer at Last season, he averaged 16.3 points a game against the Badgers.
Freshman guard Gary Harris, who will get his first taste of the MSU-Wisconsin rivalry, is averaging 12.6 points a game, while sophomore wing Branden Dawson, at 10.1 points a cointest, gives MSU a trio a double-figure scoring weapons to match Wisconsin's scoring threesome.
While MSU is expected to hold a slight advantage in the post with emergence of Payne and the improvements of Nix, Izzo is still pushing for better backcourt play.
"I think right now, our two freshman (guards, Harris and Denzel Valentine), both of them talked to me (Sunday) night, they realize they've got to play better,'' Izzo said. "We've got to get more scoring out of them, Keith's got to shoot it better and we've got to get Trice more quality (minutes). We've just got to get those guards a little bit more involved.''
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