For only the third time this season, Wisconsin is looking to bounce back from a loss, not too bad considering the calendar is about to turn to March.
After seeing its 10 game winning streak snapped on Tuesday at Maryland, Wisconsin will try for a second time to clinch a share of the Big Ten title when it faces long-time rival Michigan State tomorrow afternoon. The Spartans (19-9. 10-5 Big Ten) are also looking to get back in the win column after Minnesota snapped State’s four game winning streak with an overtime win Thursday. Even so, the Spartans have shown the ability to win road games in the Big Ten, as they are 5-2 this season.
Beating Michigan State has been easier said than done as of late. Although Wisconsin beat Michigan State at home last year, thanks to a Traevon Jackson jumper in the final seconds, the Spartans have won six of the past seven games and won by an average of 9.1 points per game. Michigan State also knocked UW out of last year’s Big Ten tournament in the semifinals.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives to play against a dangerous Michigan State team in the regular season home finale.
Lay up: Wisconsin’s guard production
Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig continue to do the little things for Wisconsin, like rebounding, finding open teammates and not turning the ball over, but the one aspect of their game that’s struggling lately is being able to efficiently score.
Koenig has been a productive scorer since being inserted into the starting lineup against Rutgers, but the sophomore has only reached double figures once in the last three games and is shooting just 25 percent from the field (8-for-32) and 27.8 percent from 3-point range (5-for-18). The good news for Koenig is that he has yet to have consecutive games scoring in single digits since becoming a starter.
The key for Koenig is to find his rhythm from 3-point range, since his game usually opens up in other areas when his perimeter shot is falling. If you look at Koenig’s stat line since the Rutgers game, 56.5 percent of shots (61-for-108) have come from the 3-point line. With Wisconsin moving the ball effectively on offense, it usually helps open up a 3-point look from either the corner or at the top of the perimeter. Koenig, who is shooting 39.6 percent from three, will need to be able to capitalize against a Michigan State defense that is only allowing teams to shoot 29.7 percent from 3-point range on the season.
Gasser appears to be more in an offensive struggle then Koenig, having gone six straight games scoring eight points or less and scoring three or less in three of the last four. Over the last five games Gasser has only been able to make multiple field goals once (3-for-5 vs. Minnesota). In the other four games he has shot 20 percent from the field (4-for-20).
Even more surprising is Gasser’s shooting woes from the 3-point line. The senior is only shooting 36.4 percent from three this year, compared to 43.1 percent when he was a junior. Even more surprising, Gasser is shooting 31.2 percent (19-for-60) in conference play one year after leading the league in 3-point shooting in conference games at 49.2 percent.
If Gasser’s shot continues to struggle from the perimeter, he should try and drive to the hoop instead of settling for jump shots. The game against Nebraska was the only time over the last five games in which he attempted more field goals from inside the 3-point line. In that game against Nebraska, he was also able to get to the free throw line four times, the most attempts he has had from the charity stripe over the last five games.
Mid-range jumper: Winning the paint?
It is clear that an area where Wisconsin struggled against Maryland was protecting the paint, as the Terrapins were able to get to the rim whenever they wanted and registered 32 points around the basket. Michigan State will likely try and follow that path, as the Spartans are averaging 29.4 points in the paint in Big Ten play.
Gasser will need to be able to defend Denzel Valentine (14.9 ppg) well and cut off driving lanes. Although Valentine has shown that he can make it from three with his size he can be aggressive as he tries and attack the rim. In conference play, Wisconsin is only allowing 26.2 points in the paint.
The front court for Wisconsin will have to be ready to prevent second-chance opportunities. The Badgers have done well on the offensive glass, allowing only 7.6 offensive rebound a game and allowed only three Big Ten teams to reach double figures, but Michigan State is averaging 11.6 offensive rebounds a game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten. The 6-6 Branden Dawson will need to be slowed on the glass, as he leads the Big Ten in offensive rebounds as he is averaging 3.2 a game.
Likely to go up against either Nigel Hayes or Frank Kaminsky, Dawson is also tough on the defensive glass and is averaging 6.7 defensive rebounds a game. Thanks to the senior forward, Michigan State has made teams work for their points in the paint, allowing teams in the Big Ten to average only 23.6 points in the post and have only allowed four teams to score more than 30 on them. It will be a key matchup on whether Hayes or Kaminsky can consistently get the better positioning when a shot falls.
Wisconsin - averaging 27.7 points in the paint in Big Ten play - will need to try and run the offense through Kaminsky to help open up the rest of the offense, something the Badgers didn’t do enough of in the first half against Maryland. Although Dawson is a ball hawk, the Spartans have allowed four of the past five opponents to reach double-digit offensive rebounds. The more chances Wisconsin can give themselves against a defense that ranks first in field goal percentage defense (38.4 percent), the better chances Wisconsin and its height advantage will have of getting into an offensive rhythm.
3-pointer: Defending the three point line
Like the Wisconsin offense, Michigan State also ranks in the top five in scoring offense at 72.5 points a game, offensive field goal percentage at 47.4 percent and have shot 48.8 percent from the field over the last five games. Valentine has reached 20 points six time times this season, averaging 23.5 points over the last two games, and Dawson and Travis Trice each have reached double digit scoring in four of the past five games. Those three lead the Spartans in scoring and have helped them be efficient from the perimeter.
Michigan State also ranks second in 3-point field goal percentage at 39.3 percent, a number that included a 12-for-17 (70.6 percent) night in a road win at Iowa. With the Spartans averaging 7.6 made 3-pointers, Wisconsin’s defense – allowing 34.8 3-point shooting this year from its opponents - will have to play sound perimeter defense.
Limiting second-chance opportunities becomes that much more important to try and limit Dawson on the offensive glass, as he is a big reason Valentine (43 percent) and Trice (36.3) can get off 3-point shots without much contention. Wisconsin will also have to be careful of Bryn Forbes, who is shooting 43.5 percent from three but only 28.5 percent over the last five games.
Dawson is capable of scoring inside and being physical down low, which could cause the Badgers' frontcourt to pick up fouls if they aren’t careful. Michigan State has forced its past five opponents to an average of 18.6 fouls a game but Wisconsin has only averaged 11.7 fouls a game in the Big Ten. Hayes, who could defend Dawson at times, will need to be careful after fouling out for the first time this year against Maryland.
The only potential advantage Wisconsin has of sending Michigan State to the free throw line is the Spartans are shooting only 63.6 percent on the season, last in the Big Ten. Dawson is only hitting 48.6 percent from the free throw line.