UW's starting backcourt trio – seniors Sharif Chambliss and Clayton Hanson and sophomore Kammron Taylor – did not score a single point in the first half of UW's 77-64 loss to Michigan State here Thursday night, let alone get into a groove.
The Spartans employed a full court press throughout the first half and covered the perimeter carefully, cutting down passing lanes and keeping the Badgers from getting open looks from 3-point range.
"My staff, we just came up to the conclusion that this team posts you up but they almost beat you from the 3," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "I thought the first half especially we did a great job of not letting them get many open looks in the 3."
In the first meeting between the two teams, Jan. 16 in Madison, the Spartans regularly double teamed the post, leaving perimeter shooters open. As a result, UW hoisted 28 triples, making 12, in a 61-58 win.
Thursday, though, MSU assiduously defended the perimeter, only rarely sending a second defender to help in the post.
"We saw Illinois did a decent job of that," Izzo said.
The Illini had success defensively in two wins over Wisconsin this season while employing a similar formula. Illinois, however, put more emphasis on ball pressure, pestering Wisconsin's guards relentlessly to help make entry passes to the post problematic.
Michigan State, on the other hand, focused on simply denying clear shooting and passing lanes, constantly tracking UW's potential 3-point shooters.
"You just go with the flow of the game," Taylor said. "If the 3 is there you take it. I think that's what we did last game. The 3 wasn't there this game."
The Spartans full court press was not particularly aggressive, but it served its purpose, helping to hinder UW's halfcourt offense.
"It pushed them out a little bit, which made those post feeds a little harder," Izzo said.
Tucker and Wilkinson combined for 19 of UW's 25 points in the first half and 34 points in the game, but could not get into a consistent rhythm. Tucker was held to eight shot attempts in the game (he made five) but did go 8 of 8 from the free throw line. Wilkinson was 7 of 14 from the field, but was forced too often into taking fade-away jumpers as he tried to work against MSU center Paul Davis.
"We wanted to set the tone early," Davis said. "Just get up in them no matter where they were at."
"We had to stay in sync," Tucker said. "They pushed us out of our comfort zone early."
The more significant problem for Wisconsin offensively, though, was the manner in which MSU shutdown the Badgers' backcourt. Chambliss, Hanson and Taylor combined to shoot 0 of 6 in the first half, with five turnovers and four assists.
The trio posted 11 points and six assists in the second half, but also added three more turnovers to their cache.
Freshman Michael Flowers bolstered UW's guard play with a couple of second-half 3-pointers and two assists; his six points and 18 minutes were career highs.
Wisconsin made 48 percent of its shots in the second half, but the Badgers' offense could not find a consistent rhythm Thursday, or make up for a 36 percent mark in the first half. UW missed its first four shots and eight of its first 11.
Michigan State took advantage of UW's cold start, building a 20-6 lead midway through the first half.
"We had some good looks and we missed some shots," Wilkinson said. "They came down and knocked down some tough ones. They were on fire to start with. We didn't get back and put as much pressure on them as we would like to, make the shots a little bit tougher."
Wisconsin's shots, on the other hand, were difficult enough.
Badgers suffer through rare foul trouble
Wisconsin's backcourt also struggled with foul trouble throughout the game, at one point prompting Badger coach Bo Ryan to put just one guard on the floor.
Chambliss and Hanson each fouled out Thursday; in 23 previous games this season, UW had had a total of two players foul out.
The fouls were due in large part to MSU's aggressive play at each end of court, particularly offensively.
"They just took it at us," Taylor said. "They were the more aggressive team in there and it showed."
Only Taylor, who served as UW's only guard for a brief time in the first half, stayed out of foul trouble, picking up just one.