No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 20 Wisconsin: Relentless offense meets dogged defense
Madison, Wis. — On most nights when Michigan State takes the court, Tom Izzo can often be seen in the sidelines, spinning his hand furiously in a circle as he implores his team to pick up the pace.
More often, it’s junior point guard Cassius Winston who is the one putting the Spartans’ collective foot on the gas, pushing and probing through the opponents' defense as he looks for the right moment to attack.
It’s one of the staples in Michigan State’s offense and has been for the better part of two decades.
At Wisconsin, there is no such approach. Pushing the pace for the Badgers is as likely as one of the Madison locals opting to not have the cheese curds with their meal.
So, as No. 11 Michigan State hits the road to take on No. 20 Wisconsin on Tuesday night, to say it will be a contrast of styles is an understatement.
“They are among the best defensive teams in the league,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They don’t give up a lot of points. Some of that is their style, but their percentage is down and that’s good. There’s no doubt Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the league.”
Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten in scoring defense and is second in field goal in percentage defense while ranking ninth in the nation on defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
However, the Badgers are also 340th in the nation in tempo at KenPom, which means they’re always looking to throw a wrench in any team’s plans to run.
“You still watch film and they might send one guy to the boards and they send four guys back, things like that,” Izzo said. “Over the years, we’ve always been able to play more than one style, and that’s been one of our strengths. This year at times, when we didn’t run as good, we didn’t do as good a job. But there have been times when we have executed pretty well in the half-court. I am concerned about it. It’s hard to say what they’ll do with the game. They don’t run a lot, it is low-scoring games, it was at Michigan for them this week.”
It has always been that way at Wisconsin, from Bo Ryan to Greg Gard. It was that way as the Badgers were on a six-game winning streak before Saturday’s loss at Michigan. In that game and the previous six wins, Wisconsin did not allow a team to score more than 61 points.
Michigan State, still one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation, will try to change that.
The Spartans (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten) will do so by getting out on the break, something they hadn’t been doing during a recent three-game skid. That started to turn around during Saturday’s victory over Minnesota when Michigan State scored 20 points in transition.
“It’s one of the ultimate team things because if one guy doesn’t do his job, it’s easier to defend but the job starts with the defense and rebounding,” Izzo said. “You had had better be a pretty good defensive team and rebounding team to be a running team. Sometimes we departmentalize them and they all kind of go together.”
While it all starts with rebounding, Michigan State is hoping it gets its best rebounder back by tip-off on Tuesday.
The Spartans avoided more bad news when fifth-year senior Kenny Goins was knocked out of Saturday's victory over Minnesota with an elbow injury, one that trainers feared could have led to a fracture.
X-rays that day proved that wasn't the case, and while there is still soreness for the team's leading rebounder, there's a chance he play against the Badgers.
"The good news is what I told you after the game is it wasn't broke, because they really thought he might have fractured or chipped a bone in his elbow," Izzo said. "That is the real good news. The bad news is it's awfully sore and his availability will be question-marked. He walked through some things yesterday. Today, I don't think there will be any physical part he'll be able to do. I don't want to say a game-time decision. I expect him to play some, to what level or what amount I'd say is a question mark."
In his final season, Goins has become an invaluable piece for the Spartans (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten). He's averaging 8.9 rebounds a game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten. He's grabbed double-digit rebounds in 10 games this season, including a career-high 17 against Louisville.
Goins is also shooting 32.8 percent on 3-pointers, is averaging 7.0 points and has blocked 36 shots this season.
"With Kenny, he's really valuable to us because of all the things he does well," Izzo said. "Maybe none of them great (except) rebounding, but none of them poor."
Not having Goins against Wisconsin will be tough for the Spartans. Senior Ethan Happ is one of the best big men in the country while freshman Nate Reuvers has been solid.
That will put plenty of pressure on Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman while freshman Thomas Kithier could again see extended minutes.
“I think you lose a lot because there’s some things we want to do defensively that we think we can take advantage of, and Kenny plays a big, big part in that because of his length, his athleticism, and he’s a very smart player,” Izzo said. “Listen, we’re not deep enough to lose anybody right now. Kenny Goins has been not our best player in almost any game, but our most versatile player in just about every game. So, he’s becoming our own miniature MVP because he can do a little bit of everything, and he helps everybody, including passing the ball into Nick. He’s done a great job of feeding the post.
“I’m hoping on his left arm, they’ll be able to put one of those Gronk pads on it, and he can play. If he plays like Gronk, that’ll even be better.”
As intriguing as the matchup is on its own, it also comes with plenty at stake in both the race for the Big Ten championship and when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding.
The winner remains in the thick of the conference race while the loser is in trouble, especially Wisconsin.
A loss for the Badgers (17-7, 9-4) would leave them three games out of first place and out of the top four. Finishing in the top four is critical because it comes with a double-bye in the conference tournament.
“With where we’re at, we’re going to control what we can control,” Wisconsin’s Brad Davison told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after the Michigan loss. “We’re extremely thankful to have the opportunity to bounce back Tuesday against a really good Michigan State team and start another streak. The goal is to be playing your best ball going into March.
“We obviously have a lot of things to work on still, but we’re in a good place. We should be confident still.”
A win for the Spartans would keep them a game out of first and bolster a resume that was good enough to earn a 2-seed from the NCAA selection committee when it revealed its early top 16 on Saturday.
Winning at the Kohl Center, where MSU won last season but dropped three in a row before that would give the Spartans nine Quadrant 1 wins, more than any other team.
“We are excited to go to Wisconsin and play,” Izzo said. “You have to win some games on the road; we’ve won some games on the road. You have to win some big games on the road; I think we’ve won a couple of big games on the road. But now a big conference game on the road, this will be one of them.”
No. 11 Michigan State at No. 20 Wisconsin
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 19-5, 10-3 Big Ten; Wisconsin 17-7, 9-4
Outlook: Wisconsin won six straight before Saturday’s loss at Michigan. ... Michigan State ended a three-game skid by beating Minnesota. ... Senior forward Ethan Happ leads Wisconsin in scoring (18.3), rebounds (10.5) and assists (4.9) ... He is fifth in the league in scoring, third in rebounding and third in assists.