GAME PREVIEW - With the regular season Big Ten title essentially off the table, the No. 10/12 Michigan State Spartans are looking forward, despite their recent disappointments, as they close out a stretch of four-straight ranked opponents with a matchup against No. 21/22 Wisconsin on Thursday night.
MSU (22-7, 11-5) will face the Badgers (20-9, 11-5) for a second time this season at 9 p.m. (ESPN) at Breslin Center before ending the regular season with a home contest versus Northwestern at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
After successive tough losses against Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan by a combined 13 points, the Spartans will be looking to gain some momentum with a second victory over Wisconsin and a win over the Wildcats before beginning play in the Big Ten Tournament, which starts on March 14th.
A victory over the Badgers would seal a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tourney, which is awarded to the top four regular season finishers.
"I'm disappointed because I wanted to be at a point where we're playing that last game for a Big Ten championship,'' MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "Right now, maybe that's not gonna happen. But we still have a couple other goals in mind; getting the Big Ten Tournament championship, getting a higher seed in (the conference tournament), and getting a higher seed in the NCAA as we move on. To do that, we have a pretty tough game against Wisconsin that we have to take care of Thursday night.''
In a battle of two teams that weren't even expected to be in the mix for a conference title when the season began both teams have made their presence felt, not just in the Big Ten but in the national picture as well.
Wisconsin, winners of three of their last five, are facing a Spartan team that has lost three of its last five as the team's square off for the 134th time in a series that MSU leads 73-60 and also includes a 45-14 advantage in East Lansing.
The last time out, the Spartans outlasted the Badgers in Madison, escaping with a hard-fought, 49-47 victory back on Jan. 22nd.
While a lot has happened since then, with MSU becoming a Top 10 team and the Badgers accumulating wins over five ranked teams - all in Big Ten play - the only thing that's relevant at this point in the season is that both teams are trying to get in the frame of mind needed for the fast-approaching one-and-done time of year.
"We've got to get a win now,'' said sophomore point guard Travis Trice, whose return to the rotation could pay big dividends for MSU in the postseason. "I think a win will solve a lot of things. We need to get on a streak and get rolling and this team is going to be fine.''
Actually, both teams are looking for the same thing.
After MSU suffered a heartbreaking one-point loss to rival Michigan, in a game they could have stolen in the last minute of play, to lose their third straight, and Wisconsin slipped up against a lower echelon Purdue team on Sunday, look for both teams to be trying to make strong statements about where they want to be entering postseason play.
"Anytime you lose three games, anytime you lose period, you are going to be mad as a competitor,'' Trice said. "To lose three in a row makes it worse. But the worst part of all of it is that in all of those games we were close, we could have won, we should have won. We need to forget about the losses now and bounce back.''
The Badgers will be hoping to do that after their setback against the Boilermakers with a lineup that is led by senior forward/center Jared Berggren, a Naismith Award Top 30 candidate who tops the team in scoring at 11.6 points a game. Berggren is also second on the team in rebounding at seven a contest.
Right behind Berggren, in a lineup that features three double-figure scorers, is junior guard Ben Brust, who has averaged 13.9 points a game over his last eight outings and who will come into East Lansing averaging 11.3 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
The Badgers third-best scoring option is senior forward Ryan Evans, who adds 10.4 points a game and is the team's leading rebounder at 7.6 boards per game.
Evans is also third in Big Ten play in rebounding.
Sophomore guard Traevon Jackson, who has developed nicely at the point guard spot since the Badgers lost Josh Gasser at that spot back in October to a torn ACL, checks in at 6.4 points and a team-leading 2.7 assists. Senior forward and X-factor contributor Mike Bruesewitz adds 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a contest.
In the first meeting Bruesewitz was the only Badger to finish in double figures.
Wisconsin will also come into Breslin with some added help off the bench since freshman forward Sam Dekker has found his game and is now averaging 9.6 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.
As a matter of fact, Dekker - who earned Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors on Monday - has scored 10 or more points in his last six games and is shooting almost 45 percent from beyond the arc.
While the series has been split in the last 20 meetings, with both teams winning 10 games each, the Spartans have held court recently, winning four of the last five matchups. The last time the Badgers beat MSU was back in Feb. of 2011 when Wisconsin routed the Spartans, 82-56 at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Chances are, there will not be a 26-point gap for either side after Thursday night's final buzzer sounds but the Spartans will be looking for more offensive production from players who have not scored well over the last three games.
That means junior guard Keith Appling, senior forward Derrick Nix and sophomore wing Branden Dawson are going to have pick it up offensively if the Spartans are expected to capture the season series Thursday night.
Of course, that will be a tall order against a Badger team that has been historically stingy on defense under Bo Ryan's reign, a run that which has seen him go 13-10 against MSU during his tenure.
Entering Thursday's game, Wisconsin is surrendering just 55.8 points a game, which leads the Big Ten and is ninth in the nation. Additionally, the Badgers have held 11 of 16 conference foes below 60 points and six below 50.
Appling and Dawson were big keys in the first meeting, finishing with 19 and 18 points, respectively. Dawson also pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds.
And considering the way Appling has struggled offensively in MSU's last three games, it would be nice for both the Spartans and Appling if he could re-create the kind of performance he ended with in MSU's first meeting with the Badgers.
"Keith Appling's got a lot to give yet, in the other aspect, as a player. He's got to start making some shots and if he does, that's gonna take some pressure off him,'' Izzo said. "He is a very good defender, he is a guy that can get it from point A to point B as fast as a lot of people. I think he's got a lot to give that he can start giving Thursday night and go right through the tournament,'' Izzo said "We haven't like the inconsistencies but I do remember having the same conversation last year and people wanting me to move him all over and this and that. He ended up having a pretty good year."
Since that first meeting with Wisconsin, junior forward Adreian Payne and freshman guard Gary Harris have taken their games to another level.
Harris enters Thursday's fray as the Spartans' leading scorer at 13.3 points a game with Appling close behind at 13.2 a contest.
Payne is now MSU's third-best scoring option along with Dawson at 10.1 points per game, with Payne topping MSU's rebounding at 7.4 a contest.
Nix adds 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
While both teams are going to find it tough going on the offensive end - MSU is only giving up 59.8 points - the two areas that may once again determine the final outcome - rebounding and turnovers - will be prominently on display.
MSU holds a plus-7.2 rebound margin and is turning the ball over 13.6 times a game, while the Badgers boast a plus-4.8 rebound and turn it over less than 10 times a game.
"Wisconsin doesn't turn the ball over, they use the entire shot clock, and they make you beat them in a half court game,'' Trice said. "We know it is going to be a grind, and we know that we are going to have to value the basketball and get the most out of every possession (because) we aren't going get a lot of them.''