INDIANAPOLIS – It was a nice run, but most Badgers fans knew it was headed for a premature close.
After taking down a dangerous Indiana team in front of a Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd full of Hoosiers fans, a sense of cautious optimism developed around Bo Ryan’s squad. Maybe this team was better than we thought, maybe Jordan Taylor and Co. could string together several wins and amount an improbable run at the program’s first conference tournament title since 2008.
But then the Badgers played a Michigan State squad – one that may be the best in the Big Ten – and realized they simply couldn’t match the size, athleticism and talent of one of Tom Izzo’s best teams in years. Fans and analysts alike learned this weekend that not only they can count on the Spartans to make a deep NCAA tournament run, but also that Wisconsin remains outside the Big Ten’s top echelon of Michigan State and Ohio State.
Although the Badgers sat just one win (or an Iowa home loss) away from a tie with MSU, OSU and Michigan for the conference title, the Spartans’ dominance Saturday proved UW didn’t deserve a piece of the crown. This year’s Wisconsin squad is certainly a quality team, but its lack of game-changing stars outside of Taylor and inconsistent shooting restrain it from the elite category.
As Big Ten Player of the Year and Michigan State forward Draymond Green pointed out after Saturday’s game, a speedy, athletic defense like that of the Spartans that can limit the Badgers’ open looks from outside will almost always come out on top against this team.
“I think when we play Wisconsin … they shoot a lot of threes, and one thing that our coaching staff really hits on is stopping them from shooting threes – they’re going to beat you from the 3-point line,” Green said. The majority of the time [Taylor's] penetrating in, he’s looking to kick out to those shooters.”
Not every team has the athleticism to keep UW’s array of 3-point threats at bay, but the conference’s best certainly do. It’s no secret that the Badgers live and die with their shooting, and that major vulnerability was as apparent as ever in Indianapolis.
Hitting 48 percent of their shots from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc against Indiana, a Rob Wilson-powered team was able to sink just enough shots to bring down a Hoosiers squad that itself had a nice outing. However, against a Michigan State team boasting three legitimate post threats in Green, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, the Badgers were clearly overmatched.
Ryan’s team has built wins this year on a foundation of never surrendering easy looks to opponents – an emphasis that places them third nationally in field goal percentage defense – but against well-rounded teams with dominant big men, such a strategy isn’t sufficient for victory.
In the 79-71 win over the hometown favorite, the Badgers allowed Indiana to sink 49 percent of their shots and relied on 30 bench points (all came from Wilson) to carry them to victory. The 13 3-pointers Wisconsin hit tied a Big Ten tournament record, as Wilson’s hot-handedness from outside came at the perfect time.
But the UW defense then allowed the Spartans to finish 6-of-9 from 3-point land and 50 percent from the field, numbers that doom them against the teams Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney is counting on to make deep runs come March.
Ryan admitted postgame that this is a team that relies on a slew of players to step up and score on a per game basis. From Ryan Evans to Jared Berggren to Ben Brust, the lack of a consistent scorer aside from Taylor is a major weakness of this team, yet another piece of the unfinished puzzle that keeps this year’s team away from the same caliber of play of the Buckeyes or Spartans.
“We had some guys that didn’t score,” Ryan said. “We need it from everybody, we need bunches of scoring, and when we get that, we’ve proven 24 times that we can get some things done.”
To put it simply, laser-like three-point shooting carried the Badgers to victory in the quarterfinals, and when such success stopped against the Spartans, it crushed the growing but unrealistic dreams of a tournament championship.
Some will point out that Michigan State, who has now defeated Wisconsin three times this season, is nothing more than a poor matchup for this year’s team. But the issue is more than how Ryan’s squad matches up with this particular Spartans team, one that extends into the disparity between these two squads in the greater Big Ten picture.
Despite a comeback close to the midway point in the second half that brought Wisconsin within six, an 11-0 run by the Spartans proved what was already becoming clear – Izzo had the best team on the floor. Just when Wisconsin seemed to have enough to regain the lead, Michigan State answered with a stellar post move to the hoop or sunk another 3-pointer, and the run quickly became indicative of the gap between where these two rivals stand.
By pushing the ball up the court and capitalizing of his advantage close to the hoop by outscoring the Badgers 22-6 in the paint, UW showed they lack the tools to dismantle such an elite squad.
Michigan State did have more, and along the way they helped prove why the Badgers fell into the perfect spot this season as a Big Ten title contender that couldn’t overcome the speed bumps that prevented them from holding a piece of the regular season title.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think the Badgers are actually a better team than they proved against Michigan State? Let him know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.