East Lansing — While Michigan State is coming off its latest dose of the reality of life on the road in the Big Ten, it soon will get another shot to prove the blowout loss at Purdue on Sunday was an outlier.
That comes next week as the Spartans hit the road for back-to-back games with Indiana and Minnesota. Before that, though, they’ll have to prove they can still take care of business at home against one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin has won six of its last seven games and beat No. 17 Maryland on Tuesday on a 3-pointer in the final seconds from junior guard Brad Davison.
“Those are the kind of shots that you dream about and you think about,” Davison said. “So, to have the opportunity, I'm very thankful for that opportunity to see the ball drop. But most importantly, that's a big win for this team. Whenever you can stack two wins in a row in this league, especially this year, it goes a long ways and it's going to make Friday (at Michigan State) a really fun game.”
Fun for sure, even more so because Wisconsin’s winning ways have the Badgers in position to pull into a tie for first place in the conference if they can beat their fourth ranked team this season.
“I think they're playing as good as anybody in the league right now,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’ve got five guys averaging more than nine points a game, so everybody gets a piece of the pie. … They’re the only team in the league with two road wins and two pretty good places to win at, and a tough home loss by one after they had a big lead. So, we've got our work cut out for us.”
No. 15 Michigan State (13-4, 5-1 Big Ten) has had its share of success against Wisconsin, winning seven straight in the series with the last home loss coming in 2004.
To continue that run, the Spartans will need a quick turnaround from their two best players — guard Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman. Both played poorly in the loss at Purdue, but Izzo says he believes the duo’s track record shows the struggles will be a one-time problem.
“I have all the faith in the world that Cash and Xavier will play better,” Izzo said. “And then it's getting our other guys going.”
Getting those other guys going has been one of the main themes throughout the season. There was plenty of pressure on sophomore Aaron Henry and freshman Rocket Watts before the season, and with injuries to Joshua Langford and now Kyle Ahrens, who likely will miss the next two weeks, that pressure gets ramped up and spreads to guys like sophomore Gabe Brown as well as those deeper in the rotation.
“We’ve just got to deal with it,” Izzo said.
After a miserable 2-for-16 shooting performance from 3-point range at Purdue, the Spartans are counting on more from their guards. Of course, that means Winston playing the way he does most games, but Izzo is also asking his star guard to do what he can to make those around him better.
In Izzo’s mind, that’s what makes a player elite.
“It’s just putting guys in a situations where they can be successful,” Winston said. “I think that's my job. I know these guys’ spots, I know where they like to have the ball and things like that. So, it’s just putting them in a situation where they can be successful.”
Putting players like Tillman and Henry in the right position is old hat for Winston. However, that same sort of comfort level likely doesn’t exist with the constantly rotating group of power forwards.
The Spartans have struggled all season to nail down the rotation, as sophomore Thomas Kithier started early in the season and has been replaced by sophomore Marcus Bingham. Meanwhile freshman Malik Hall has had his moments, while freshman Julius Marble has seen his playing time increase in recent games as Michigan State encounters a number of quality big men in the conference.
“You’ve got to get consistent with somebody,” Izzo said. “It's hard to go 12 minutes, 12 minutes, 12 minutes and four minutes or whatever it adds up to. It’s hard to do that, and believe me, I know it's not the right thing to do. But sometimes the situations put you in a position where you have to do it and sometimes, like I told Aaron, you’ve got to step outside the box. Maybe I do, too, and just go with two of them and see where it takes us. Those are decisions I'll have to make.”
Those decisions could come into focus against Wisconsin (11-6, 4-2) and heading into next week’s road swing. Get it all on track, as Izzo is confident will happen, and Michigan State should remain at or near the top of the standings all season.
Continue to struggle with in consistencies, and it could be a bumpy road.
“You’ve got to learn from it,” Winston said of the flat performance at Purdue. “You gotta pay attention to it. You don't want it to last. Play like that and it can hurt you for a long period of time. But right now we're still at the top of the Big Ten. We shore up a lot of things moving forward and we're still gonna be a pretty good team.”
Wisconsin has six of its last seven games, including three against ranked teams.
Dec. 21, Milwaukee: W 83-64
Dec. 28, at Tennessee: W 68-48
Dec. 31, Rider: W 65-37
Jan. 3, at No. 5 Ohio State: W 61-57
Jan. 8, Illinois: L 71-70
Jan. 11, at No. 20 Penn State: W 58-49
Jan. 14, No. 17 Maryland: W 56-54
Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan State
► Tip-off: 7 p.m. Friday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
► TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
► Records: Wisconsin 11-6, 4-2 Big Ten; Michigan State 13-4, 5-1
► Outlook: All five Wisconsin starters are averaging between eight and 14 a game, with junior forward Nate Reuvers leading the way at 13.9 points. Reuvers is also second on the team with 5.4 rebounds and leads with 35 blocks. Sophomore guard Kobe King is averaging 10.7 points a game. … The Badgers rank third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (59.8 points per game).