Hoops notes: Success in close games can help later in March
NEW YORK — If you only looked at the numbers, you probably would have predicted men's basketball would beat the Badgers with relative ease in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament Friday.
The Spartans are the No. 1 seed in the tournament, while the Badgers were seeded ninth. MSU has also been ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press college basketball poll all season, and the Badgers have yet to crack the top 25.
According to all the metrics and statistics second-ranked MSU should have blown out Wisconsin, but it wasn’t the case Friday as the Spartans were tasked with winning another tightly-contested game. And while head coach Tom Izzo wasn’t too pleased with his team’s performance, he said he wasn’t shocked at how close the game was throughout.
“Wisconsin has been this way, like I said early,” Izzo said in the team’s postgame press conference. “Always tough to play against whether you beat them or lose. I’ve lost a lot of close games to Wisconsin when Bo was there. Lost a lot of one-point games, a lot of last second shot games.
“I was disappointed in my team, maybe in myself, too. I just didn’t think we played well. But like some of my, my equipment man and guys like that said out to me, when has it been any different with Wisconsin?”
MSU is now 3-0 against the Badgers this season, but two of those wins have been five points or less. Last Sunday in the Spartans’ 68-63 win in Madison, the team found themselves trailing about midway through the second half, and needed a perfect 3-point shooting performance (Winston went 6-6 from three) by sophomore guard Cassius Winston to avoid the upset.
The Feb. 25 matchup with the Badgers, along with Friday’s quarterfinal game, aren’t the only examples of closely-contested games MSU has played in recently. The Spartans overcame a 27-point deficit on the road to beat Northwestern by four points on Feb. 17, and the team edged out a three-point home win over Purdue back on Feb. 10.
The Spartans are 7-0 this season in games decided by six points or fewer. In a college basketball season filled with upsets, this is an impressive feat to Izzo, who noted what head coach of No.4 Villanova, Jay Wright, told him after his team’s 69-68 overtime victory over unranked Seton Hall Wednesday.
“I watched the interview and then I talked to him the next day. And he said, ‘You know at this time of year it’s better to win close than blow a team out by 20,’” Izzo said. “I told him he was freakin’ crazy when I talked to him, but I kind of understood his point.”
Like his teammates, freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t discouraged by the close games. The recently-named Big Ten Freshman of the Year actually believes the tight battles will help the team as postseason play picks up full steam.
“I think it just gives you a lot of experience in the tournament. If it’s a close game we’d be ready more, we won’t be as nervous,” Jackson Jr. said.
All 29 of the Spartans’ wins haven’t been pretty or easy, but college basketball in March isn’t about how you win, it’s about winning. And sophomore wing Miles Bridges believes the team’s experience in a number of close contests will be essential moving forward in the postseason.
“I definitely think it’s going to help us. Even in this tournament we’re going to have a lot of those games," Bridges said. "For us to have experience in winning those games, I feel like it’s going to be good for us."
Winning in other ways: Wisconsin actually outshot the Spartans from both the field and from behind the 3-point line, but MSU was able to outplayed the Badgers in other aspects, particularly on the glass and getting defensive stops down the stretch.
The Spartans won the battle on the boards, 41-27, but what was perhaps the deciding of the game was MSU’s defense in the closing minutes. The Badgers made only one field goal in the last two minutes of the contest.
“The length bothered them definitely, especially Jaren and Josh on the wing,” sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. “We got a lot of deflections and steals down the stretch. That helped us get some key stops.”
Rematch with the Wolverines: University of Michigan blew out Nebraska in the second quarterfinal game Friday, 77-58, which means the Wolverines will play the Spartans at 2 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals.
The Wolverines handed the Spartans their third loss of the season at the Breslin Center back on Jan. 13. U-M junior forward Moritz Wagner put up a career-high 27 points in the win.
Since what was arguably their most impressive victory this season thus far, the Wolverines have dropped three games, while the Spartans haven’t lost.