Badgers to face improved MSU

Spartans have won 9 of 10 since last playing Wisconsin

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo might want to consider thanking Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan Thursday night when the Badgers go to East Lansing for the final regular-season meeting between the two schools.

Thanks not so much for loss the Badgers handed to Izzo's Spartans on Jan. 16, but the way it happened and the aftermath it sparked.

Ever since MSU's debacle at the Kohl Center where Izzo's team fell apart in the final few minutes, allowing Wisconsin to come from behind to steal the win, the Spartans have regrouped, retooled and refocused themselves into one of the best teams in the country.

"Our chemistry has always been pretty good but it seems like we are just more focused as a team," Izzo said. "It's been a fun team to coach this last month, month-and-a-half after we got over the tough loss there. You get to this time of year and some teams are wearing out in these last two weeks. I think we have been getting stronger and that's a credit to them more than anybody."

Stemming from the loss in Madison, the Spartans have made several major changes within their lineup. The most noticeable is the demotion of senior Chris Hill from the starting point guard role to the bench.

Freshman ambidextrous point guard Drew Neitzel has replaced Hill in the starting five. Neitzel has started the last five games for Michigan State and in those games the Spartans are 5-0.

Despite the use of a rookie to run the show, the Spartans have not lost a step and appear to have even gotten better. Just as Neitzel seems to have found his groove in the Spartans' offense, Hill appears to have gotten back on track by coming off the bench.

Hill boasts a 3-to-1 assists-to-turnover ratio, the best in the Big Ten; Neitzel has a 2.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover mark. Their distribution of the ball brings out the versatility of the entire team.

"They are a very unselfish team," UW assistant coach Greg Gard said. "Always have been. Knowing from Chris Hill just from watching him on tape and playing against him for the past four years – Chris is a very unselfish player, very unselfish person. Chris makes them a very good team. Drew makes them a very good team, along with all their other players too."

With Hill coming off the bench now, Michigan State's depth has become that much more of a concern for opponents.

"They've been really good for a long time," UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. "This is probably as good as I've seen them in their four years. They are a little more consistent. They are a little more spread out scoring-wise. In the past they had three, four guys contributing and now this year they have, like, six guys in double figures.

"It is just spread out even that much more and that many more weapons that can hurt you," Wilkinson added. "If one person is having kind of an off night shooting them ball there is always somebody else there to step up and knock down shots for them."

MSU's depth – nine players average double-figure minutes – is unquestionably one major concerns for the Badgers, but so is the versatility their players provide everywhere on the court.

Considering the Spartans run primarily a four-guard set, Izzo has had to rely on his guards to pick up the slack on the glass and they have delivered all season long.

Michigan State leads the Big Ten in rebounding, boasting an impressive +8.4 margin. Eight Spartans average at least two rebounds per contest.

"They've been doing a great job on both ends, offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds," Wilkinson said. "Their guards crash and their guards aren't the smallest guards first of all. They know how to get position, they've been there, they're experienced. They do a good job of just keeping balls alive and then kind of corralling them I guess. We've got to do a good job of keeping them off the boards on both ends."

Another strength of MSU – and its guards in particular – has been the transition game, which the Spartans play as well as any team in the country.

Izzo credits his team's success to its ability to run the fast break better than earlier in the year. As long as they continue to rebound the ball well, the transition game will continue to be a major strength for the speedy Spartans.

"Athletically they pose a lot of problems just because they've got guys they can get out and go in transition," UW senior guard Clayton Hanson said. "They're scoring 15, 20 points a game in transition so that's obviously one of the big parts of their success so far. How you take it away is just taking good shots and taking care of the ball. If you give them easy turnovers and they go around and score buckets, it's hard to stay in the game that way."

Gard and the Wisconsin coaching staff also recognize the Spartans' improved transition game since January. The coaches, though, believe the Badgers can slow the Spartans down if they are efficient offensively and defensively.

"Transitions usually start with bad shots and turning the ball over," Gard said. "If we can minimize those two and take the shots that we want and being efficient on our offensive end – not turning the ball over is a big part of that. That's usually the first kicker to starting a transition game like theirs. But they transition as well and I've seen them probably make as many baskets off a score on them giving up a basket and then coming right back down and getting one than I have off any turnover or missed shot or anything like that."

Playing within the system is easier said than done, however, especially on the road. This season, UW is 3-3 on the road in conference play and the Breslin Center is considered one of the toughest venues in the nation.

Said Gard: "It is simple to talk about it [playing within the system] but yet when the lights are on and people are flying up and down 100 miles an hour you have to really focus in and be disciplined every possession or they'll make you pay for any miscue you make."

Wilkinson agrees.

"You have to play complete games to even have a chance to be in the game with them," he said. "Especially at home they play real well. It is going to be a good test to see how we sustain on the defensive end how we move the ball and if we can knock down shots. They are playing amazing right now. Everyone's doing well. They are doing a great job at both ends of the floor and in transition. It's going to be a real tough game again."

Who: UW (8-4 Big Ten, 17-6 overall) at MSU (10-2, 19-4)
When: Thursday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. Central Standard Time.
Where: Breslin Center (14,759), East Lansing, Mich.
Broadcast:The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and can also be heard live on the Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series Notes: This will be the 117th meeting between the two schools. MSU leads the series 63-53 and has a 38-14 advantage in East Lansing. Wisconsin won the first meeting between the two teams this season on Jan. 16, 62-59.

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