Some losses can serve as a teaching tool or as a rallying point. Not this one. This loss stung Michigan State, shaking its confidence.
"I think these guys have been through enough," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "I think it really took a toll on a couple players."
In the final minutes of the schools' last meeting, everything went right for Wisconsin – and haywire for Michigan State.
Wisconsin made 2 of 3 field goals and 6 of 6 free throws in the 11-0 run.
The Spartans, meanwhile, missed their last six field goal attempts over the final 4:36 of the game and missed the front end of two one-and-one free throw opportunities. MSU leads the nation in free throw shooting at 81 percent, but the Spartans made just 6 of 11 against UW.
"There are losses that do help you and there are things you learn from," Izzo said. "You can't learn when you are leading the country in free-throw shooting and you go to Wisconsin and you miss a couple at the end.
"It's not from learning anything or practice, it's just that it happens. I don't look at it as learning something as much as I felt for a couple of our players that struggled some in that closing couple minutes."
Michigan State (10-2 Big Ten, 19-4 overall) has righted the ship since, winning five consecutive games and nine of its last 10 while boasting a No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
Now, along comes No. 20 Wisconsin (8-4, 17-6) for a 6 p.m. tip-off this evening at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The Badgers have tortured the Spartans in the past four seasons, winning six consecutive games in the series. Of those six matchups, four have been decided by four points or less.
"The only thing I can really say is coming down to the end of the game we've just made a few more plays than they have," UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. "They've had their chances and not capitalized like they normally do. We just happen to make some plays and finish some shots."
The Spartans' talented senior class has not beaten Wisconsin and, partly as a result, has not won a Big Ten title in its time at Michigan State. Top ranked and unbeaten Illinois clinched a share of the conference championship Wednesday with an 84-48 walloping of Northwestern and is a near shoo-in to win the title outright.
The MSU/UW matchup still could have major ramifications, however. Michigan State can clinch at least a tie for second place with a win tonight. A Wisconsin victory would draw the Badgers within a game of the Spartans. Perhaps more importantly, the winner will have a high-profile win to add its résumé with NCAA Tournament selections just more than two weeks away.
"We want to win every game we play," Wilkinson said. "It doesn't matter where you stand, what seed you are going to get. You just want to win your next game and then your next one after that."
Much has been made of the budding rivalry between the two programs, but UW continues to discount the ‘r word'.
"You guys [reporters] can call it whatever you want but we're looking at it as just another tough game," Wilkinson said. "It's going to be competitive, it's going to be tough."
The intensity of the matchup, however, cannot be denied. UW sophomore guard Kammron Taylor said that only Wisconsin's two contests with No. 1 Illinois have been more intense than the Badgers' meeting with MSU earlier this year.
"Obviously any time two teams like that are facing off you look at the games in the past year and it's just intense and great games to be a part of," UW senior guard Clayton Hanson said.
Four years ago, the notion of a UW team sweeping a season series from Michigan State was borderline unthinkable, especially considering that the Spartans had won 12 of 13 against the Badgers.
Wilkinson and Hanson, however, have a chance to finish a four-year tenure at UW undefeated against MSU.
"The games we've played with them have been amazing," Wilkinson said. "It's just been so much fun just being a part of them.
"It's just so much fun playing against a good team. When you've got guys that you've played against for four years and you know them on and off the court it's fun."
Playing 40 minutes
While Wisconsin pulled out a dramatic win over MSU Jan. 16, the Badgers do not want to recreate the first 38 minutes of that game, when the Spartans built a 59-51 edge.
"They knocked down shots, they ran their offense, they pushed the ball and got some easy baskets," Wilkinson said. "They did a lot of different things that we have to try and take away or limit and hopefully we can stay with them and have a chance at the end."
"We just have to go out there, play the full 40 minutes," Taylor said.