A Big Ten Conference showdown is on tap for Thursday night, as the 22nd-ranked Wisconsin Badgers take on the 10th- ranked Michigan State Spartans in a marquee matchup at the Breslin Center.
The two teams are tied at 11-5 in conference play, a game and a half behind first-place Indiana with just two games to play in the regular season.
Wisconsin (20-9) had been winners of three straight games before enduring a disappointing home setback to Purdue last Sunday to slip in the standings. The Badgers finish the season with two straight road games, and they haven't been very strong away from home this season (4-5).
Michigan State has been even worse off than Wisconsin of late. Once in the driver's seat for the regular-season title, the Spartans have dropped three straight games, most recently falling at rival Michigan last Sunday, 58-57. The good news is that they now return to East Lansing where they've gone 15-1 this season.
Michigan State edged out Wisconsin in a defensive struggle in Madison on Jan. 22, 49-47, to extend its lead in the all-time series to 73-60.
The Badgers came out flat on their Senior Day versus Purdue the last time out, shooting less than 41 percent from the field and getting outrebounded by a 39-27 margin en route to the 13-point setback. Jared Berggren's final stat line was solid (13 points, eight rebounds, four blocks), but he shot just 4- of-12 from the field in the process. Ryan Evans and Sam Dekker each netted 10 points in the defeat. While Wisconsin's offense isn't one of the more potent units in the league, it is usually much better than it showed on Sunday, pouring in 67.0 ppg. The biggest reason for its outstanding season has been the play of its defense, which yields a league-low 55.8 ppg. The Badgers are without an elite scorer, instead relying on four players who average between 9.6 and 11.6 ppg. Berggren (11.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Evans (10.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg) bring toughness to the frontcourt, while Ben Brust (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Dekker (9.6 ppg) are potent out on the perimeter, combining for 111 3-pointers at a 41.4 percent clip.
The Spartans trailed their fiercest rival by 10 points with under five minutes to play before going on a 14-4 run to tie the game in the final minute. After Michigan took a two-point lead, Derrick Nix had a chance to tie the game at the foul line with eight seconds left, but he made 1-of-2 as MSU fell just short. Despite playing solid defense, the Spartans couldn't keep pace on offense, shooting less than 36 percent from the field with 18 turnovers. Adreian Payne tallied a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Gary Harris added 16 points to the losing effort. Similarly to Wisconsin, Michigan State boasts a modest scoring attack by Big Ten standards (69.2 ppg), but has enjoyed success behind an outstanding defensive showing (59.8 ppg). The team's top scorers reside in the backcourt, with Harris (13.3 ppg) and Keith Appling (13.2 ppg) enjoying solid seasons, but its biggest advantage comes down low, with Payne (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 bpg), Branden Dawson (10.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 1.7 spg) and Nix (9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) all shooting greater than 50 percent from the field.