Before Tuesday night's Indiana-Ohio State game this contest had lost almost all of it's luster. MSU is coming off a 58-57 loss at Michigan in a game the Spartans were so shocked to have a chance to win their last-second play turned into a circus act while Wisconsin lost by 13 points at home — 13 points at home!!! — to an inferior Purdue team. Needless to say, both the Spartans and Badgers were able to pull their respective tails from between their legs thanks to the Buckeyes.
Ohio State's 67-58 win at Indiana means that there is a chance - if Michigan beats Indiana at Crisler Center on Sunday - that this game's winner can still claim a share of the Big Ten Championship. (MSU would have to beat Wisconsin and then defeat Northwestern at home on Senior Day while Wisconsin would have to defeat MSU and win at Penn State). Now this game has some true significance!
The Only Colors designed a great tiebreaker graphic with all potential outcomes in the final week. Now that Indiana seems fallible all teams want a piece of the Big Ten pie. The Buckeyes, thanks to the win, can also get in on the title as long as they beat Illinois at home this weekend. That means there is a chance there is a four-way tie for the Big Ten Championship. In that scenario (if MSU was included) the Spartans would be the No. 4 seed. That would also mean Wisconsin would finish fifth in the conference, ending the streak of finishing in the Top 4 every year during Bo Ryan’s 12 years in Madison*. However, if Wisconsin wins in East Lansing and finishes in a four-way tie atop the Big Ten the Badgers would be the conference’s No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
(*NOTE: Two of Wisconsin’s 4th-place finishes were a 9-7 conference record in 2005-06 and a 10-8 record in 2008-09. So while the overall stat is really cool it’s not like Wisconsin has been lighting up the Big Ten every year.)
The Spartans won the early-season meeting in Madison, 49-47, in a game that, in all honestly, felt like the past dozen MSU-Wisconsin games. Here’s a big breakdown of Thursday’s showdown at MSU’s Breslin Center (h/t to Kenpom):
A month ago Basketball Prospectus’ John Gasaway had an interesting braekdown of how this Wisconsin team isn’t that much different from Bo Ryan’s previous teams. The breakdown compares 2013 to 2012 where, in Big Ten play, Wisconsin’s eFG% (46.5 to 46.7), TO% (15.4 to 15.6) and OR% (31.3 to 29.2) are very similar. I broke it down a little more in a preview of the Michigan game at Wisconsin but it boils down to one thing: Wisconsin stinks at free throw shooting. It’s at 62.6 percent on the season (329th out of 347 teams in the nation) and an even worse 60.6 percent in Big Ten play (dead last). Now, the only saving grace in this is Wisconsin has always played to its strengths; knowing driving and getting hacked isn’t necessarily a good use of an offensive possession the Badgers don’t attempt to get to the line much. However, in close games when freebies are crucial this becomes a real problem.
The Spartans aren’t a hacking team, but you can believe in a close game Tom Izzo knows which Badgers he wants on the stripe (you paying attention, you of the 41.7 percent Mr. Ryan Evans?). You saw how Izzo had his team double team Michigan Trey Burke over the weekend so Michigan had to get someone else the ball (MSU trailed 58-57 at the time). When Mitch McGary, a 44 percent free throw shooter, touched the ball it was hacking time. McGary missed the front end of a one-and-one allowing the Spartans a chance (one that didn’t pan out, obviously) to win the game.
Still, Wisconsin’s free throw shooting is probably No. 4 on a list of “keys to the game” if its even that high. In order, the keys to this crucial Big Ten contest are as follows: Wisconsin’s 3-point shooting vs. MSU’s 3-point defense, how will MSU defend Sam Dekker and with who, and can Keith Appling break out.
Wisconsin’s 3-point offense vs. MSU’s 3-point defense: Don’t mistake Wisconsin for Duke when it comes to 3-point shooting. Not only does Duke have a much better 3-point percentage (41.4 percent to just 34.2 percent) but the Blue Devils don’t jack up as many 3-pointers or at as much of a staggering rate as Wisconsin. Duke has taken 548 triples this season, just under 19 per game.
Wisconsin has taken 638 3-pointers this season, an average of 22 per game. That’s not a crazy number, but it’s more staggering when you realize the Badgers average about 62 possessions a game. When you throw in the turnover percentage of 15 you’re looking at about nine turnovers per game. Take those empty possessions away and you have Wisconsin shooting a triple on 22 of 53 shot-ending possessions, a better-than-40-percent clip. That, my friends, is a lot of 3s. (For those still wondering, Duke averages 69 possessions a game. With a turnover percentage of around 16 that’s about 11 giveaways a game meaning Duke has 58 shot-ending possessions. So, while Duke does shoot a lot of threes compared to most teams, it only shoots threes on 32.6 percent of shot-ending possessions.
Now that you’ve digested that you are free to laugh whenever you hear someone say “boy, Duke shoots a lot of 3s.”
How does this factor into the MSU game? Simple. The Spartans made it a point of defending Michigan’s 3-point shot well. MSU did just that holding Michigan to 0-for-12 from deep, the first time the Wolverines won a game without sinking a 3-pointer since 1995. The difference between Michigan and Wisconsin is that the Wolverines are athletic and were able to offset that horrendous long-range shooting by getting into the paint all game long. Wisconsin doesn’t have that same ability. Yes, guys like Dekker will get near the hoop for some layups and dunks but not often. That coupled with the above-noted information that Wisconsin isn’t exactly attacking the rim to draw fouls plays right into MSU’s hands (MSU is 56th nationally holding opponents to just 31.2 percent from beyond the arc).
Defending Sam Dekker: At one point Branden Dawson was MSU’s shut-down defender. But ever since a potential concussions against Michigan on February 12 he’s been a completely different player on both ends of the floor, especially defensively. He’s a step slower and seems to get beat for at least one but usually two backdoor plays each game. Height and position-wise a Dawson-Dekker matchup makes sense. Both are long and athletic and Dekker has been a big key in Wisconsin’s pre-Purdue greatness down the stretch. If you assume both teams keep similar starting lineups the likely defensive matchups (MSU defending Wisconsin) would be: Keith Appling on Traevon Jackson, Gary Harris on Ben Brust, Dawson on Ryan Evans, Adreian Payne on Mike Bruesewitz and Derrick Nix on Jared Berggren. Dekker usually spells Evans or Bruesewitcz.
I suppose the Spartans could use Payne on Dekker, but Payne is a big mismatch on offense and him staying out of foul trouble is a bigger key in this game since Wisconsin’s offense will force Nix away from the hoop much of the night.
Dekker scored 10 points in 26 minutes in the loss to Purdue and his offensive rating of 144 was Wisconsin’s best. If Wisconsin wins Dekker will no doubt be the key. That’s why Michigan State better have a great game plan for who will stop him and how he (they?) will do it.
Paging Keith Appling: It’s been well documented that Appling is struggling with his shot. Just when you thought his confidence was coming back despite still underwhemling shooting he lets Trey Burke pick his pocket for the game-winning steal in a game that, at the very least, was bound for overtime.
In his last five games Appling is 10-for-26 from 2-point range and 2-for-22 from 3-point range (12-for-48, 25 percent overall). (He’s missed his last 14 3-point attempts spanning back to the 15:18 mark in the first half at Nebraska on February 16. Now, for the most part Appling hasn’t let that affect how he’s run the game. He’s still finding others for open shots but he’s been a little less aggressive in looking for his own shot because, at this point, who wants to create your own good look when there is just a one-in-four chance you make it. Still, this is the point where Michigan State is looking to start getting “hot” for the NCAA Tournament. Win against Wisconsin and Northwestern on Senior Day and then make a run in the Big Ten Tournament (revenge against Michigan and/or Indiana?) and cement that No. 2 NCAA seed or, gasp!, a No. 1 by winning out and defeating Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament finale. If the Spartans are serious in making a run – and Izzo believes his club is – it starts with Appling breaking the shackles of this funk.
During Monday’s Big Ten Teleconference Izzo said that this MSU team has a chance to go as far as any Spartan team in the NCAA Tournament he’s ever coached. This is coming off three straight losses! Izzo realizes MSU’s three-game losing streak is more about the murderer’s row of a scheduling block than his team coming apart at the wrong time. But, that’s why Wisconsin is an important “must-have” game and securing it might take Appling’s best effort in a month.
The pick: When I talked to MSU players after Sunday’s loss at Michigan there was still a disbelief that MSU lost not just some of the games during it’s three-game losing streak but each and everygame during the streak. In Payne’s words: “We look at it as we shouldn’t have lost these (3) games – we shouldn’t have lost any of them.” This team isn’t sulking. It’s pissed – a little battered – but more pissed and ready for vengeance. Wisconsin will do what it always does and keep things close, but look for the Spartans to pull away in various spots in the second half for a double-digit win. That means MSU at -4 or better should make you smile.
***Make sure you come back this weekend for an Indiana at Michigan breakdown to close the Big Ten regular season.
Last week: 9-5 (not bad after a 2-5 start!) 2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 60-29-1 2013 Year-to-Date: 68-32-1