East Lansing — The last time Michigan State played Wisconsin, things looked far different for both teams.
The Spartans were in the midst of a season-long three-game losing streak and the Badgers had started the Big Ten season 1-4 as interim coach Greg Gard was getting his feet under himself following Bo Ryan’s retirement.
Since then, each team has righted the ship, and for Wisconsin, things couldn’t be better. It has won seven straight and handed Maryland its first conference home loss last weekend.
“They may be the hottest team in the nation,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
The run has vaulted the Badgers from also-ran to in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Wisconsin (16-9, 8-4 Big Ten) also holds the coveted fourth spot in the conference, meaning it would be the last team to get a bye into the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. It’s a spot Michigan State wants.
“Winning the Big Ten championship doesn’t seem possible now, but we want to get in the top four to win the Big Ten tournament, so the last five games are huge,” Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine said. “Not only that, we want to finish strong and get momentum and feel good about ourselves going into the NCAA Tournament.”
Michigan State (21-5, 8-5) wasn’t feeling great about itself Jan. 17 at Wisconsin when it suffered the first of two consecutive one-point losses. Valentine missed a 3-pointer as time expired.
But while that game sparked Wisconsin, it was also a bounce back of sorts for Michigan State, which had just gotten blown out at home by Iowa. Michigan State would lose its next game at home to Nebraska, but Izzo was satisfied they had solved any issues with effort and since then, have been steadily improving.
The only loss since came last week in overtime at Purdue — a third straight one-point loss.
“They’ve been playing good, but we are, too,” Valentine said. “We’re at our place now and they’ve won seven straight. But we just beat a really good Indiana team that had just beaten Iowa. We came back and handled them.”
Part of the game plan will be containing Bronson Koenig, who had 27 points the first meeting, and Nigel Hayes, who scored 25. It also means slowing center Ethan Happ and forward Vitto Brown, who scored 21 against Maryland.
“Hayes and Bronson Koenig have hurt us,” Izzo said. “I think it is some of their unknown guys, like Vitto Brown is playing at a different level right now than he was earlier and their center, Happ, has been good, too.”
They’ve been so good it looks like Gard is in position to become Wisconsin’s permanent coach. The longtime Ryan assistant is 9-4 since Ryan’s retirement.
“The guy proved he deserves the job,” Izzo said. “I only say that because when you do come into a situation where you one, replace a legend and two, get the respect of the players and to get them to play and reach down, that says a lot about him right there.
“Whether they get to the tournament or win a bunch more games or don’t, he’s already captured that and I think that speaks volumes for him.”
For one night, though, Michigan State will be more worried about ending Gard’s winning streak and putting itself in a position to get back in the top four in the Big Ten.
And that is the only motivation the Spartans need this time of year.
“We don’t owe them anything,” Valentine said. “It’s more that we owe ourselves because we let a game slip away. If we won that game, we probably have momentum and maybe not have lost to Nebraska.
“But it is what it is. We’ve gone through our ups and downs and everything happens for a reason.”
Wisconsin at Michigan State
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Wisconsin 16-9, 8-4 Big Ten; No. 8 Michigan State 21-5, 8-5
Outlook: Michigan State has lost three straight to Wisconsin, including last season’s Big Ten tournament championship game.