Chicago, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - Winners in all but one game over the last two months, the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers try to keep the good times rolling on Sunday as they face off against the Michigan State Spartans in the title game of the Big Ten Conference Tournament at the United Center.
Wisconsin, the top seed in this tourney, cruised to a 16-2 mark in league play during the regular season, losing only to nationally ranked Maryland on the road just a few weeks ago and a stunning blow by lowly Rutgers in New Jersey back in January. Since the head-scratching setback against the Scarlet Knights, the Badgers have been on cruise control.
The squad began pursuit of just their third Big Ten Tournament title with a 71-60 victory against Michigan in the quarterfinals, followed by a 71-51 triumph over Purdue on Saturday afternoon.
Wisconsin, which hasn't won the event since defeating Illinois (61-48) in 2008, played in the championship round as recently as two years ago, losing to Ohio State by seven, 50-43.
As for the third-seeded Spartans, who won this event last year with a 69-55 triumph over in-state rival Michigan, they too picked up a double-bye in the tournament thanks to a top-four finish during the regular season. The quest for a fifth tournament crown started with a 76-67 victory against sixth-seeded Ohio State on Friday and carried on with a 62-58 upset of second-seeded and eighth-ranked Maryland on Saturday.
These teams met only once during the 2014-15 regular season, with the Badgers capturing a 68-61 win at home on the first of the month. In that contest, Frank Kaminsky erupted for a game-high 31 points and pulled down eight rebounds for the hosts, while Bryn Forbes accounted for 21 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting behind the 3-point line for MSU.
As a result of the recent victory for the Badgers, the all-time series now stands at 75-62 in favor of Michigan State, according to MSU sources.
Michigan State trailed by as many as 16 points less than nine minutes into the game on Saturday versus the Terrapins and appeared ready to retreat to the locker room, but the second half saw the Spartans dial up the defensive pressure and take down the Big Ten newcomers by four.
Travis Trice dropped in 20 points for the Spartans, followed by Branden Dawson with 17 and eight boards, while Matt Costello delivered 10 points off the bench on 4-of-5 shooting from the floor. In an odd way, having Denzel Valentine shoot just 1-of-8 from the field, 1-of-7 behind the 3-point line, resulting in just three points, might actually be a good sign given that MSU was able to fight through his struggles and still come out on top.
Heading into play on Sunday, Valentine was still the second-leading scorer for the Spartans with 14.4 ppg, his 41.1 percent accuracy on the perimeter taking a slight hit from Saturday's performance. Trice checks in with 15.1 ppg and while he is only 39.4 percent accurate from the floor overall, between he and Valentine they've accounted for 316 assists and only 135 turnovers. Some of those feeds have gone to Dawson (11.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg) who has surely created his own scoring opportunities as well with 90 offensive rebounds.
Purdue had been living on borrowed time since this tournament began and even though the Badgers fell behind by seven midway through the first half and trailed by five at the break, Wisconsin had very little trouble turning the tables in the second half of the 20-point decision.
The turnaround was based on a defensive effort that limited the Boilermakers to a mere six field goals in the second half, 16 points in total. Bronson Koenig led four starters in double figures for the Badgers with 19 points, followed by Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker with 15 apiece and a combined 14 rebounds. Frank Kaminsky had an ordinary day as he dropped in only 12 points, missing all three of his attempts on the perimeter. However, he did fill his stat line with five rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals.
Kaminsky, a candidate for national player of the year honors, has been a steady presence as one of the top scorers in the conference with 18.2 ppg. A 55.6 percent shooter who can dominate in the paint with a plethora of moves, the big man has also shown the ability to attack from the outside with 39 percent accuracy from 3-point range. Kaminsky is also the team leader in rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (86), blocks (51) and steals (30), making him one of a very rare breed indeed.
Giving Kaminsky help at the offensive end and on the glass are Dekker (13.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Hayes (12.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) as the team beats foes in the scoring department by almost 16 ppg and on the glass by a 6.4 rpg margin.