MADISON - One of the biggest preachers of Wisconsin’s one-game-at-a-time-philosophy, even Josh Gasser couldn’t help himself but to look to the month of March when the Big Ten schedule came out last summer.
Knowing it was his last season and that he would be a piece of the most talented team he’s ever played on, Gasser circled March 1 – senior day – with the hopes that it would end in celebration.
“I envisioned this exact scenario happening,” said Gasser said, with a Big Ten championship shirt on over his uniform and a piece of net tied to his red title hat. “Senior night, last home game, against a really good team, closing out the Big Ten, I didn’t know for sure if it was going to happen.”
Thanks to senior All-American Frank Kaminsky, Gasser’s premonition was right on the money.
Kaminsky scored a season-high 31 points, as No.5 Wisconsin capped off its home season with a 68-61 victory over Michigan State, one of its fiercest rivals, to clinch a share of its first Big Ten regular season title in seven years.
The Badgers (26-3, 14-2 Big Ten) have a chance to win the title outright by winning one of its two final regular season games, starting at Minnesota (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten) Thursday.
“When you put in the work they have and have players that have been as dedicated as these guys are, it’s fun to want (more),” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who earned his fourth Big Ten regular season title as a head coach. “I just hope that each day they come to practice, they’re working on satisfying the want, and that is being successful, continuing to play as long as we want.”
Wisconsin shot 52.0 percent – its best shooting game since Feb.3 vs. Indiana - and never looked back thanks to a 15-0 run between halves that was driven by post touches.
In the first half of its 59-53 loss to Maryland, UW scored three points over a 13 possession span and relied heavily on the 3-point shot (1-for-11 in the first half). UW didn’t make the same mistake twice.
The Badgers scored 34 points in the paint, including the first eight points of the decisive run and another four from the free throw line as a result of attacking the basket.
“We knew they were a physical team, so we had to get something going inside,” said Kaminsky, whose points were the most he’s ever scored in a conference game. “Against Maryland we settled for a lot of shots and didn’t want that to happen again.”
Kaminsky’s words carried some weight to it. Hours before the Kohl Center doors open, Kaminsky was on the court working on his post moves. He also sat alone on the bench, wrapping his head around getting prepared to play his last home game.
“I wanted to do something special,” said Kaminsky.
It was all right, pulling out post moves that Ryan and Gasser admitted to not seeing before. Kaminsky was so dominant that Gasser said he caught himself at times just watching the 7-0 center go to work in the low post.
Not only did he finish 11-for-17 shooting, Kaminsky was 3-for-4 from 3-point range, 6-for-8 from the free throw line, had eight rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals.
“He was ready to play,” Ryan said of Kaminsky. “He was not going to be denied.”
Thanks in part to sophomore Nigel Hayes 14 points and Gasser’s 9, Wisconsin’s starters outscored Michigan State 59-26. Kaminsky and Hayes scored the Badgers’ first 19 points, scored a combined 22 points in the paint and shot 12 of 15 in the opening 20 minutes and 17 of 26 for the game.
“I thought we did a real good job of misdirecting, ball fakes, getting the ball into the post, getting guys in position to score,” said Ryan. “Individually guys still had to make the moves. Nigel had some great counters. Frank, obviously, had some great counters. The two of them in the first half, that was quite a show they put on with their post moves.”
The Spartans entered the week No. 1 in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense (.384) and No. 2 behind UW in scoring defense (61.1), but Michigan State allowed the Badgers to shoot 59.3 percent in the first half.
It was a breath of fresh air considering Wisconsin’s offense has averaged 61.5 points and 42.3 percent over the last six games, including the conference-low 53 points against the Terrapins, after averaging 75.7 points and shooting 50.2 percent in the first nine games of the conference season.
That was just part of the problem for the Spartans. Leading the conference in defensive rebounding percentage, Michigan State was out rebounded 35-24, a season-low. Michigan State didn’t score much either, as Wisconsin held the Spartans’ top three scorers – Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson and Travis Trice (a group averaging 41.3 points) – to 30 points on 11-for-27.
It was a moot point in the end with Michigan State having no answer for guarding Kaminsky. Saying he would have started clapping for him if he wasn’t coaching against him, Izzo not only said the senior was the best player in the country but boasted he’s the league’s best player since Purdue’s Glenn Robinson (1992-94).
“That kid made some plays,” said Izzo. “He made some shots with his right hand, with his left hand, he made passes, he played pretty good defense … I thought the kid was sensational.”