After a demoralizing 69-56 Senior Day loss to Purdue Sunday, members of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team were ready to concede their chance at a Big Ten title.
They may have spoken too soon.
When No. 14 Ohio State knocked off No. 2 Indiana Tuesday night — spoiling the Hoosiers’ own Senior Day along the way — it reopened the Badgers’ chances to grab a slice of the conference title. If Indiana loses its final regular season game at Michigan Sunday and Wisconsin (20-9, 11-5 Big Ten) closes the regular season with a two-game sweep, it could win a share of the trophy that had quickly faded into the distance.
That race begins against No. 10 Michigan State (22-7, 11-5 Big Ten) Thursday night at the Breslin Center, where the Badgers have not won since March 2, 2004, and will attempt to buck that trend against one of the most complete and deepest squads in the ultra-competitive Big Ten.
Sorting the puzzle that is this Spartans’ team is freshman guard Gary Harris, a former McDonald’s All-American who has quickly scaled the ladder to lead Michigan State with 13.3 points per game.
“He’s turned things loose a little bit more with running through passing lanes and being aggressive, where maybe early in the year he was a little more cautious and trying to figure some things out,” UW assistant coach Greg Gard said of how Harris has improved since UW fell to MSU on Jan. 22.
“He’s playing beyond the years of a freshman in terms of the shots he’s taken and what he’s hit at key times for them in games.”
While Harris may be the flashy new star, joining him in the frontcourt is a trusted veteran in point guard Keith Appling. Appling — who also puts up 13-plus points a night — is the composer of the Spartans’ offense, handing out nearly four assists per game.
It was Appling who led Michigan State with 19 points in an ugly 49-47 home loss for the Badgers earlier this year, but the Spartans have developed more than a few offensive weapons since that first meeting. The most dangerous player on the court Thursday night might be 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne, owner of three double-doubles throughout his last four games and MSU’s leading rebounder.
“They had a couple young guys that have grown tremendously since [the first matchup],” fifth-year senior forward Jared Berggren said. “I think Payne is playing the best basketball that he’s played in his career; he’s such a great talent. When he’s playing at a high level it makes them so much better.”
As the Badgers know all too well, Michigan State has other proven scorers in the pain, starting with Branden Dawson. In one of his best performances of the year, the sophomore forward shredded Wisconsin’s defense with 18 points and 13 rebounds on 7-of-14 shooting.
Despite the efforts of Payne and Co., MSU finds itself on a three-game skid, the losses coming against three teams entangled in the race for the Big Ten crown — Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.
As the Spartans try to calm the waters, Wisconsin enters with a similar goal in mind: correcting the wrongs in a surprising home loss to a Purdue team buried deep in the Big Ten standings. Defensive lapses and getting trigger-happy on outside shots — often without an attempt to feed the ball inside — cost the Badgers in a decisive second half against the Boilermakers, according to Gard.
In East Lansing, against a more talented and much deeper Spartans team, such mistakes could seal Wisconsin’s fate.
“The way we executed [against Purdue] was not good, in any regards really — offensively it was poor, defensively it was poor,” Berggren said. “We let them get some stuff in transition where Michigan State will run twice as hard, especially on their home court.”
For the Badgers, regaining the form that brought them three easy victories before Sunday starts with improving upon its 21.4 percent from three-point range against Purdue. But Wisconsin must also keep pace on the glass against a roster loaded with size and known for its physical style, as the Spartans rank third in the conference with a +7.2 rebounding margin.
Through it all — hair-thin losses to Minnesota and Michigan State and the recent flub against Purdue — Wisconsin now has another shot at earning its fist regular season title since 2008. The memories of those games lost will remain fresh in the minds of players when they take to the Breslin Center floor.
“That stung for a while and that stuck with us,” freshman guard Sam Dekker said of the previous loss to Michigan State. “It’s a bitter feeling when you have a game like that, that you let slip through your fingers and through the cracks that you know you could have.”