Men's hoops: Tough opening acts

UW hosts Big Ten preseason favorite Sunday. Fresh off loss at Illinois, MSU travels to Kohl Center.

Maybe the Big Ten schedule makers have a sick sense of humor. Or perhaps it is just that with so many good teams in the league this year, several programs were bound to start the conference season with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Michigan State's Big Ten-opening schedule? Gauntlet is an understatement.

After losing at No. 6 Illinois Thursday night, 60-50, No. 7 MSU travels to the Kohl Center to take on host Wisconsin. The Badgers' home court has been a house of horrors for all Big Ten teams the past five seasons, and the Spartans are no different. They have not won in Madison since Feb. 27, 2001.

That includes MSU's meltdown last season, when they blew an eight-point lead in the final two minutes in one of the Badgers' wildest victories in memory.

Wisconsin is looking to improve to 2-0 in league play after topping a good Iowa team on Thursday night.

With 14 league games left to be played, opening the year 0-2 would not be a total disaster for MSU, especially considering the circumstances. But it certainly is not the footing the Spartans want to get out on.

"I'm sure that they are very passionate in the fact that they don't want to start off the Big Ten season 0-2," UW assistant coach Howard Moore said.

The Spartans were the near universal preseason favorite to win the league title. If any team can handle this slate—one that continues with a home game against Indiana Wednesday—it is MSU.

Michigan State boasts three of the league's best players in center Paul Davis and wings Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager. And sophomore point guard Drew Neitzel has a near 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But depth and finding the right rotation at the ‘4' have been concerns.

Still, with four top players as good as Davis (19.3 points, 9.9 rebounds per game), Ager (21.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists), Brown (17.5, 3.4, 2.8) and Neitzel (8.2 points, 5.6 assists), the pieces are in place for MSU to challenge for a Big Ten title and possibly a second straight run to the Final Four.

An 0-2 start in Big Ten play would not end all of that, but it obviously would not be a good beginning, either.

"Having two tough road games to start off with—we have two tough home games to start out with—it is very important to get off to a good start," Moore said. "And for them to come out of this with a split would be better than being 0-2."

The Spartans create matchup problems for just about everyone they face with the combination of Brown, Ager and Davis.

The 6-foot-11, 270-pound Davis will be a particular challenge for the Badgers' young post players. The combination of centers Jason Chappell and Greg Stiemsma and power forwards Brian Butch and Marcus Landry is starting to come into its own, but Davis is among the nation's best post players.

"He brings the whole gamut," Moore said. "He's going to be a tremendous rebounder. He's going to be able to step out on the floor and knock down shots. He'll be able to get on the block—either block—and make good moves, counter moves, and get your guys in foul trouble. So our guys are going to have to be really sharp, very attentive, and pretty aggressive to make sure that we're not making mistakes on him."

What: Wisconsin (11-2 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) v. No. 7 Michigan State (12-3, 0-1)
When: Sunday, Jan. 8 at 12:38 p.m.
Site: Kohl Center (17,142) in Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: CBS will televise the game live; Wisconsin Radio Network will broadcast game live.
Series notes: Michigan State leads the all-time series 64-53, but the Badgers hold a 38-22 edge in Madison… After losing eight straight to MSU, Wisconsin won six in a row before losing to the Spartans on the road last year. UW has a three-game Kohl-Center winning streak versus MSU… Three of the last four MSU-UW games have been decided by four points or less.

Badger Nation prognostication: Wisconsin's post players have played well so far, but Davis is another level and will control the paint—unless UW gets him in foul trouble. Ager and Brown are the type of slashing perimeter players that have given the Badgers fits this at this season and Sunday may be one of those days.

Wisconsin has the home-court edge of course, and its depth will wear down most teams this season, even a veteran squad like MSU. The key to this game may be the Badgers' perimeter defense. If Kammron Taylor, Michael Flowers and Ray Nixon can control penetration and harass entry passes, the Badgers will win.

Oh, and Wisconsin has its star, Alando Tucker, playing at an extremely high level. MSU will not be able to slow him down, but the feeling here is that the Spartans' stars will be the difference.

Our pick: Michigan State 74, Wisconsin 69

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