staff, January 4, 2012

Wisconsin and Michigan State squared off last night in a game that will not help the Big Ten's national image. Via a combination of slow pace, good defense, and missed shots that both teams would normally make, the Spartans and Badgers labored for points. It took Michigan State over 13 minutes of game time to break into double digits–and even then they were only down two points. Wisconsin's shooting nightmare that began against Iowa persisted, and it truly looked like the first team to 50 would win.

Michigan State was the first team to 50, and they got there with just over three minutes remaining by spreading the floor and relying on Keith Appling's ability to create offense. It worked well, as the Spartans were able to score nine points in the eight possessions Draymond Green watched after picking up his fourth foul.

Unfortunately for Michigan State, they were stuck on 50 over the final three minutes of regulation while Jordan Taylor went to work. The senior guard pulled his team back into the game, but he then missed a free throw that would have given Wisconsin the lead. A contested Appling jumper at the buzzer was no good and the game went into overtime.

In the extra period, Michigan State's defense came through, holding Wisconsin to just four points in the first seven possessions. That resulted in a seemingly safe seven point lead with just 31 seconds left, but a couple of Taylor rainbow threes and some missed free throws gave Wisconsin one final possession to tie it. Taylor missed a three, then Ryan Evans grabbed the rebound and retreated to the three-point stripe. Evans turned and fired just as horn was sounding. AND IT WENT IN.

Officials reviewed the play for what seemed like an eternity, and it was ruled that Evans didn't get the shot off in time. Note the discrepancy of the clock on the scoreboard and the clock above the basket– that's something I've never seen before. The basket clock is considered the official one, and it's clear from this image that Evans didn't beat that clock. Michigan State picks up a huge win at the Kohl Center.

The Spartans held Wisconsin to their second-lowest output of the season (only Marquette was better), and we saw for a second straight game that the Badgers can't score at a high level when they are missing threes. Combined with the Iowa game, Wisconsin is now eight for their last 50 from downtown (16 percent). Clearly, any team is going to struggle when shooting that poorly, but the Badgers rely on the three more than most. Credit Michigan State for making things difficult, but some of it was just poor shooting. You certainly don't expect to see Ben Brust and Jared Berggren airballing open threes on a regular basis.

Obviously, the past two games indicate that "eye test" proponents were at least partially correct about Wisconsin–the Badgers aren't as good as their computer numbers say. Still, don't expect this team to lay down anytime soon, as they still defend like mad and can scorch anybody when their shots are falling. I still believe they can contend for a Big Ten title.

This win serves notice that Michigan State is a serious player in the Big Ten race. I know two B1G teams have already managed to win at Kohl, but I don't expect that to suddenly become a commonplace occurrence. With this one in their back pocket, the Spartans have a better chance of overcoming the cruelty of the scheduling gods:

Games against Penn State/Nebraska/Iowa
Wisconsin 6
Indiana 5
Purdue 5
Minnesota 5
Northwestern 5
Michigan State 4
Ohio State 4
Michigan 4
Illinois 4

Since the Big Ten is very competitive outside of the bottom three teams, we can count the number of games against those teams and use it as a proxy for schedule strength. The Spartans get only four of these easier games, compared to six for Wisconsin and five for several others. Obviously, I should note here that Penn State, Iowa, and Nebraska won't be rolling over for anyone; the Hawkeyes' win at Wisconsin is exhibit A. Still, getting to face these teams in lieu of somebody else is a scheduling break, one that Michigan State gets less often than most.

Let's also note that Wisconsin gets to play each of these teams twice–a big scheduling advantage for a team that should still finish in the upper half of the Big Ten. The fact that they've already lost one of these "gimmes" really opens things up. KenPom now projects Ohio State to finish alone atop the conference at 14-4, with Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Indiana all at five losses. Obviously, there's a long way to go.

"A long way to go" is a decent descriptor for the Nebraska basketball team. The Huskers had more turnovers than points for much of the first half against Ohio State, and they ended up losing by 31 points. Nebraska actually did a decent job defensively, forcing 19 turnovers, but much of that came when the outcome was a foregone conclusion and Thad Matta had extended his bench.

Ohio State's defense was the impressive unit in this one, holding the Huskers to a mere 0.60 points per possession. The Buckeye defense has become a shot-minimizing machine, forcing bundles of turnovers and rarely allowing second chances. This might be Matta's best-ever defense, which is saying something given last year's unit.

Tonight, Illinois visits Northwestern in a crucial swing game for both sides (6pm CT, BTN). We've been harping that the Wildcats still need a quality win, but it's now looking like they already had one–Seton Hall knocked off Connecticut last night to move to 13-2. Still, Northwestern needs to win home games like this one if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament. Illinois is also at a crucial juncture of their season after falling apart against Purdue. Illini fans can at least hope to see their team score some points against what has been the Big Ten's worst defense, but this game figures to be close.

The late game pits Minnesota against Iowa (8pm CT, BTN). The Gophers have shown well in two road losses, but they need to start racking up conference wins if they want to be in the NCAA Tournament discussion. The Hawkeyes hope to show that their win at Wisconsin was a turning point and not just a fluke. Watch Minnesota's turnover rate in this one–if the Gophers can keep the miscues to a minimum, they shouldn't have much trouble getting their first B1G win.