Madison, Wis. – Wisconsin is reeling. At least, it sure seems like the Badgers are scrambling to hold their season together.
This week has been particularly difficult as Wisconsin blew a 12-point, second-half lead at Iowa on Monday, playing without second-leading scorer Kobe King. It was the third loss in four games and dropped the Badgers three games behind the Big Ten leaders.
But things were about to get much worse. Two days later, King announced he was leaving the program, dealing the Badgers quite a blow. Later that same day, the team was notified junior captain Brad Davison had been suspended for one game by the Big Ten after he was called for a flagrant 1 foul against Iowa as he struck Connor McCaffery below the belt.
Two starters out and No. 14 Michigan State coming to town for a 1 p.m. tipoff on Saturday. Yes, that sounds like a team that is reeling.
Just don’t try and convince the Spartans they’ll be able to take it easy when they walk on the court at the Kohl Center.
“You’ve just got to understand that they’ve got a great fan base, they’ve got a really good team, a really good coach and they’ve got a really good system over there,” Michigan State guard Cassius Winston said. “So the fans are gonna rally behind that team. They’re down a couple players so the fans are gonna be even more into the game, the players are gonna be even more into it, wanting to prove that they're still a good team.
“So it's gonna be a tough environment and Wisconsin is already a tough place to play. So you’ve got to be prepared to go in there and play your best game because you're gonna need it.”
King was averaging 10 points a game while Davison is averaging 8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. King scored 10 and Davison nine in the first meeting this season – a 67-55 Michigan State win at home – but were combined 6-for-19 shooting.
Even without two key members of the rotation, Tom Izzo is expecting an inspired effort in a difficult environment.
“You know that that place is going to rally behind these guys,” Izzo said. “It’s like an injury. Usually the first game or two everybody rallies. So, the (fans) are gonna be rallying and we’re going to have to meet the challenge.”
It’s a challenge Michigan State (16-5, 8-2 Big Ten) has met well recently. The Spartans have defeated the Badgers in eight in a row with two of those coming at the Kohl Center.
Continuing that run at this point is critical as the Spartans remain tied atop the Big Ten with Illinois, while Maryland and Rutgers sit a game back, with Iowa two games out of first.
“Right now, we're all playing for something,” Izzo said. “We’re all playing for something and unfortunately there's 10 teams playing for a championship yet, but there's 12 teams playing for an NCAA bid. So everybody's playing for something and that's the uniqueness of our league this year.
“Now, hopefully, we're playing for something really big. With that said, we gotta win games, we gotta win games on the road.”
Michigan State ended a two-game road skid with a victory at Minnesota on Sunday and a win over Wisconsin (12-9, 5-5) would bring the Spartans above .500 in conference road games. That’s a critical point to be at halfway through the Big Ten season.
With trips to Michigan and Illinois in back-to-back games coming up, as well as two games with Maryland and a trip to Penn State, getting on a roll would be wise for a team that has battled some consistency issues over the last few weeks.
“I think we're in a good space,” Winston said. “We're playing good basketball but we’ve still got some things we can still get better at, and that's a good position to be in because it's not our peak, it's not our best team. So, we're still in a position where we can get better and shore up a couple of things that can lead us on to becoming a better team down the stretch.
“We’re only halfway through Big Ten and guys are still figuring things out, still figuring out the Big Ten. We’re still learning, we're still getting better, but to do that and still be at the top of the Big Ten is a good sign. It’d be a lot worse if we were at the bottom trying to figure these things out. But we're on top and we're still getting better.”
No. 14 Michigan State at Wisconsin
Tip-off: 1 p.m. Saturday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
TV/radio: Fox/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 16-5, 8-2 Big Ten; Wisconsin 12-9, 5-5
Outlook: Wisconsin will be without junior guard Brad Davison, who was suspended one game for a flagrant 1 foul committed against Iowa on Monday. … Junior forward Nate Reuvers leads the Badgers in scoring at 13.8 points per game. Junior guard D’Mitrik Trice, brother of former Spartan Travis Trice, is averaging 9.4 points and leads the team with 3.5 assists. … Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in free-throw percentage at 75.6 percent.