If the Badgers can walk out of the Breslin Center with a win, it would snap an eight game road losing streak to the Spartans dating back to 2004. Since 1940, the Badgers have only won 14 times in East Lansing and their eight previous losses have come by an average of 10.1 points. And just to make things more challenging, Michigan State has won five of its last six games, including a 19-point drubbing of Indiana Sunday.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (16-9, 8-4 Big Ten) in order to pick up the regular season sweep against Michigan State (21-5, 8-5).
Lay Up: Winning the turnover battle
Wisconsin’s defense has forced its last six opponents into double-digit turnovers. The last team to not commit double digit turnovers against Wisconsin? Michigan State, which finished with nine on Jan.17. Michigan State ranks eighth in the Big Ten in turnovers per game with 12.1 turnovers and last in the conference in turnover margin (-2.5).
Over the last six games Wisconsin is forcing teams into 12.5 turnovers, up from its season average of 12.1. Part of that is because of UW’s stronger defense, allowing teams to shoot only 42.1 percent on an average of 54.5 shots during the seven game win streak. Wisconsin has also found ways of coming up with steals, having registered five or more steals in four of the last five games to push its season average to 5.7 per contest.
Ethan Happ (40) and Nigel Hayes (27) have been two of the more consistent players in creating extra offensive possessions for Wisconsin, especially Happ, as the redshirt freshman has been able to use his length to jump or cut off passing lanes. After having four steals Saturday at Maryland, Happ is tied with Rutgers’ Corey Sanders in the conference with 40 steals (1.6 per game). Zak Showalter is tied for 16th in the Big Ten with 1.1 steals a game
Since losing to Wisconsin, Michigan State has been up and down in terms of taking care of the basketball, averaging 11.8 turnovers a contest. Over that stretch there have been two occasions where they committed single digit turnovers but also a season-high 19 turnover game against Michigan.
If the Badgers’ defense can keep its turnover trend alive, Wisconsin will have to take advantage of the extra offensive possessions. UW is averaging 14.4 points off of turnovers.
Mid-Range Jumper: Can Wisconsin generate free throw opportunities?
Wisconsin attempted a then-season high 36 free throws against Michigan State in the first meeting and followed up the next two games attempting 35 and 37 free throws. Wisconsin’s ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line against the Spartans was critical, as there was one point in the second half where Wisconsin scored 10 of 12 points from the free throw line from 9:24 to 2:34.
Despite not attempting at least 30 free throws over the last four games, the Badgers have avoided the long scoring droughts that plagued the team in the first half of the season. Over the last four games UW has shot 46.1 percent while only attempting 20.7 free throws.
With Michigan State holding teams to 37.3 percent from the field, which ranks first in the Big Ten, Wisconsin will have to find different ways of manufacturing offense, which includes getting to the free throw line. In the seven games since playing Wisconsin, Michigan State has held its opponents to 16.2 free throw attempts per game.
In order for the Badgers to duplicate the same kind of success, Wisconsin will have to be aggressive attacking the rim, generating post touches, finishing through contact and creating second-chance opportunities. Achieving that will fall on the shoulders of UW’s frontcourt. Hayes may lead the team in free throw attempts but Happ has also shown the ability to draw fouls. Happ has struggled as of late of getting to the free throw line, only attempting 2.6 free throws over the last three games. In the win over the Spartans, eight of Happ’s 14 points came from the line.
3-Pointer: Contesting the 3-point shot
Michigan State has been one of the nation’s most consistent teams from 3-point range this year, ranking first in the Big Ten and third in the country in connecting on 42.3 percent of its perimeter shots. The Spartans also rank third in the conference at 8.8 3-point field goals made a game.
That’s not good news for a Wisconsin team that ranks last in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage defense (38.2 percent), but the Badgers have held their opponent to 35.5 percent from three over the last three games. To be fair, Wisconsin’s last three opponents (Ohio State, Nebraska, Maryland) range from sixth to 11th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage. Michigan State shot 44.4 percent from three in the first meeting with Wisconsin.
Not only is Michigan State a prolific perimeter shooting team, the Spartans share the basketball better than any team in the country. The Spartans rank first in the nation with 20.7 assists per game, and Denzel Valentine is a big reason for that success. Not only does he lead the conference by scoring 19.5 points per game, Valentine leads the conference with 7.1 assists per game.
Not only will Wisconsin have to constantly keep an eye on Valentine, who has made multiple 3-pointers in nine straight games and at least one in 35 straight games, the Badgers will have to be wary of Bryn Forbes and his team-leading 48.1 percent shooting percentage from three. In fact, 64.5 percent of his shot attempts come from three, and it doesn’t take him long to get into a rhythm, evident by his season-high eight triples against Michigan three games ago. Between Bronson Koenig, Showalter and Hayes’ length, Wisconsin can’t lose either of those two off of screens.
Another factor to limiting Michigan State’s outside success is rebounding. The Spartans rank second in offensive rebounds per game at 12.3 and had 15 such rebounds for 17 second-chance points in the first meeting with Wisconsin. Wisconsin allows opponents to average 9.1 offensive rebounds a game and can’t allow the Spartans to get an easy look from three without the shot being contested.