After the disappointing loss to Northwestern last Saturday, Michigan State men's hoops returns to action Friday night when they travel to Madison to take on the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers. Michigan State currently sits in third place in the Big Ten with a 5-1 record, a half-game behind Wisconsin and No. 17 Illinois who are at the top of the Big Ten with a 6-1 record.
Michigan State was riding a nine-game winning streak into its bout with Northwestern despite shaky play over the last three weeks. The turnover issue has continued to be a thorn in the team’s side and the 17 giveaways against the Wildcats was a major factor in the loss. MSU has also struggled to dominate the glass and have surrendered 29 offensive rebounds in its last two games.
Wisconsin, led by national player of the year candidate and sophomore guard Johnny Davis, have won seven straight games since suffering an 18-point loss to Ohio State on Dec. 11. The success has largely been driven by its patented disciplined playing style. Wisconsin currently ranks second in the country in turnover percentage, averaging only 8.4 turnovers per game as opposed to Michigan State’s 14.5 turnovers per game which is good for 290th in the country.
Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo is aware of the challenges that MSU will face against Wisconsin, particularly their ability to get scoring outbursts from any contributor to the team. Outside of Davis, Izzo mentioned junior forward Tyler Wahl, senior guard Brad Davison and freshman guard Chucky Hepburn as other players that can carry Wisconsin’s offense along with Davis.
After watching Wisconsin’s last two games against Northwestern and Ohio State, here are three factors from Michigan State’s point of view that will most likely determine the outcome of MSU-Wisconsin.
Can Michigan State slow down Johnny Davis?
Davis has turned into one of the best players — if not the best — in the country, averaging 22.1 points a game, good for fifth-best in the country. Davis burst onto the scene when he led Wisconsin to a Maui Invitational championship earlier in November with a signature 30-point performance over then No. 12 Houston in the semifinal.
Davis has not relented since then and has continued to show up in the biggest matchups on the Badgers’ schedule. The game that put him as a front-runner for the Wooden award came three weeks ago when he scored a career-high 37 points to lead Wisconsin past then No. 3 Purdue.
It’s no secret that Davis will be the main focus for Michigan State’s defense. The Spartans have avoided being beaten by a single individual performance so far this year, but they have not played a scorer of the caliber of Davis. MSU will most likely rely on freshman guard Max Christie — the team’s best perimeter defender — to hound Davis and force other players to beat them.
Can Michigan State rebound effectively and run in transition?
As mentioned before, Michigan State has struggled mightily in recent outings in closing out defensive possessions with a defensive rebound, which has also hindered the team’s once lethal fastbreak. Michigan State has surrendered 29 rebounds in its last two games, meaning they have to defend for much longer periods of time.
The lack of rebounding has also prevented MSU from being able to generate easy points in transition, which has been a staple of Izzo’s teams for the last two and a half decades. The Spartans only scored 25 points in transition in its last two games, which were the third and fifth-lowest scoring performances for the team overall this season.
Wisconsin is 79th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom. MSU could use the opportunity to shore up the recurring issues on the boards and help create easy buckets quickly to help crack the Badgers’ stifling defense.
Can Michigan State hold onto the ball?
To put it bluntly, Michigan State will have no chance in this game if they turn the ball over at the rate they have all season. The Spartans rank 290th in the country in turnovers per game, gifting the ball to the opposing team 14.5 times a game on average.
MSU has been able to overcome the woes thanks to strong defense at times and clutch moments down the stretch — but as the schedule gets tougher — the turnovers will have to stop if MSU wants to be competitive. MSU is averaging 10 less shots than its opponents per game because of the glaring mistakes and against an offense as potent as Wisconsin’s, a shot disparity that wide will be tough to overcome for MSU.
Wisconsin will not return the favor and will cherish the ball each possession, which will make MSU’s turnovers that much more glaring. With Wisconsin having one of the better offenses in the Big Ten, Michigan State will have to make sure they are mentally focused and ready to hold onto the ball. Izzo said he has had individual meetings with junior guard Tyson Walker and sophomore A.J. Hoggard throughout the week to address the issue and hopes the turnovers will not be as frequent.
Bonus Take: MSU is going to its first hostile road environment
Michigan State is currently 3-0 on the road with wins over Butler, Minnesota and Northwestern. They were quality wins, but the atmosphere in those buildings will not match the raucous energy at the Kohl Center Friday night. The Wisconsin faithful will pack the building and do everything in their power to make life as difficult as possible for MSU. It will be interesting to see how MSU reacts to the hostility and if it will lift them up or cause them to wilt.
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