MSU men's basketball, winners of its last three contests and eight out of its last ten, is a different team heading into Madison on Tuesday night than it was when the conference-leading Wisconsin Badgers came into the Breslin Center on Dec. 5 and sent a sellout crowd home empty-handed.
It was the Spartans' first conference matchup of the season, a game that symbolized the first quarter of their season. MSU head coach Tom Izzo and his staff watched as Wisconsin's Steven Crowl and A.J. Storr combined for 40 points on 8-for-10 shooting from three in contrast to their squad's 31.5% from behind the arc.
Izzo takes full responsibility for such an unexpected shooting outburst, but he knows it can't happen a second time.
"Some guys get hot against teams, some guys play better in certain arenas, some guys make shots on certain nights," Izzo said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. "But, for (Storr and Crowl) to go 8-for-10 in that game, it really socked us and I'll blame it on us a lot."
The No. 13-ranked Badgers sit atop the Big Ten standings with just one loss thus far. The team possesses a similar makeup as the Spartans, led by a host of upperclassmen who have each worked their way up the line in recent years.
Wisconsin guards Chucky Hepburn and Max Klesmit are playing the best basketball of their collegiate careers and forward Tyler Wahl remains a steady force down low. In conjunction with Storr and Crowl's above-average shooting nights, a hobbled Malik Hall and a disastrous rebounding night for MSU, the Badgers were simply too much to handle in East Lansing.
If not for a slim two-point victory over Maryland on Sunday, MSU would still be in search for its first true road win of the season entering Madison. The Spartans were fortunate to get that off their back in College Park.
"Any conference road win right now, any win, (is) a good win the way this game has gone this year for everybody," Izzo said.
When it began to look like MSU would cruise to a win against Maryland, the Terrapins stormed back from a 15-point deficit in the first half to take a thin lead in the second.
"When we were defending well and running in the first half, I thought we were as good as we've looked all year against the best defensive team (in the Big Ten)," Izzo said.
Nonetheless, the Spartans couldn't hold the commanding lead. Maryland ramped up its defense and nearly pulled off the comeback. A recurring theme for the Spartans this season has been their inability to put it together for 40 minutes. Failure to execute on the boards almost cost them, as they got out-rebounded by 14.
Wisconsin also won the boards battle by 14 on Dec. 5. This was never an MSU team that was going to be a dominant rebounding squad, but if such wide margins persist, the Spartans will be in trouble against the fundamentally sound Badgers.
"The disappointing part, we got our butts kicked on the boards [against Maryland], and the last time we played Wisconsin, both teams out-rebounded us by 14," Izzo said. "So that'll be a point of emphasis in this game."
MSU veteran guards Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard saved the Spartans with late-game heroics in College Park, accounting for MSU's final 11 points. Hall was a key factor in the early going, scoring nine of his 12 points in the opening minutes.
Hall's given the Spartans a much-needed boost since returning to form post-injury. He'll need to remain a force if MSU wants to continue its winning ways.
"Malik Hall has been a big difference in why we've made this little surge here, and I hope that continues because he's going to be a very important part as we move forward," Izzo said.
After playing 23 minutes on a banged-up foot the first time against Wisconsin, Hall gets another crack at the Badgers.
MSU and Wisconsin will tip-off at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26, at the Kohl Center in Madison. FS1 will air the game.
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