Ode to the road

Badgers will try to stay in championship hunt at Michigan State Thursday

With precious few days left in the Big Ten's regular season, the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team still has a chance to win a share of the conference championship. But to do so they have to win two games this week—and see Purdue pull a major upset Sunday at first-place Ohio State.

The Badgers' two remaining games are not only on the road, they are on road in extremely difficult environments where few visiting teams rarely go home happy.

The Badgers, of course, have focused their attentions on Thursday's matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing, a trip that precedes the season finale at Iowa Saturday. The Spartans are 11-1 at home this season; the Hawkeyes 16-0.

"We approach everything the same way that we approach any other game," sophomore forward Brian Butch said. "We don't change anything. We get ready for Michigan State first and get ready for Iowa on Friday."

"We are just working on the things that we always work on," freshman forward Kevin Gullikson said. "Just practicing on what we need to do. Just get focused and preparing for everything Michigan State has that we have to play against: just the versatility and everything. So we're just working hard to just be ready for what they bring."

The Spartans (19-9 overall, 7-7 Big Ten) have lost four of their past five games to slip out of contention in the Big Ten race, but they can draw within a game of Wisconsin (19-7, 9-5) in the standings with a win Thursday, while keeping pace with Michigan and Indiana, as teams jockey for seeds in next week's Big Ten Tournament. The Badgers are currently in fourth place, a half-game behind Iowa and Illinois and a game-and-a-half behind Ohio State.

Wisconsin will enter the Breslin Center Thursday with a 2-6 road record this season, including a 2-4 road mark in Big Ten play. It is no secret that the road has been unkind to Big Ten teams this year. Only the Buckeyes have a winning road record in league play, and that thanks to a tightly contested 56-53 win at Northwestern Wednesday night, which capped OSU's conference road record at 5-3. Meanwhile, Indiana won on the road for the first time in conference play all year Wednesday, besting Purdue.

"You look across the Big Ten this season, it's been hard for everybody to win on the road, no matter who you are," Wisconsin point guard Kammron Taylor said. "So once you get that lead you have to maintain that focus and just continue to stay aggressive."

That is one trick on the road: keep an edge when the home team makes its run and is feeding off the energy its fans provide.

"You don't have the crowd behind you when things aren't going well, to cheer you up, to get things going," Taylor said of playing on the road. "You really just have your team."

A problem for Wisconsin this season has been a lack of consistent execution on the road—particularly on the offensive end. That manifested itself last week in a 62-51 loss at Northwestern. It was not simply that the Badgers were missing shots. They became tentative—perhaps as much a product of being on the road as it was the result of the Wildcats' defense—and struggled to get decent looks at the basket against NU's 1-3-1 zone.

"That's like fresh blood to them when they see you acting tentative like that," Taylor said.

"Just being mentally focused for the whole 40 minutes," Taylor said. "Not just 20 minutes. I think that's been one of our downfalls this year is that we haven't stayed focused for the whole 40 minutes on the road. I think if we do that we can definitely give ourselves a better chance of winning the game. Just staying mentally focused and blocking out the crowd and just playing as a team."

The buzzword after the Badgers' loss in Evanston, Ill., last week was "sync". Wisconsin was out of it all game offensively. So why do teams—not just the Badgers—slip out of sync so often on the road?

"Sometimes you get caught up in the crowd and whatnot," Butch said. "We need to just focus on what we need to take care of as a team."

"Everybody's got to be focused," Gullikson said. "Then you need to know what you have to accomplish, and then when everybody is working together like that things will start going your way. You get in a little rhythm and the rhythm keeps going. That kind of helps you get things done on the road."

Taylor hopes that he and his teammates have learned their lessons on the road this season.

"That aggressiveness," Taylor said. "One of our problems this year is when we got down on the road people start to get tentative and we stop attacking and then we stop drawing fouls and we stop getting to the free-throw line. So we stop getting easy baskets.

"We are old enough now. Our younger guys are mature now. We just have to stay aggressive for the full 40 minutes."

After Thursday's game, Wisconsin will fly back to Madison and then make quick preparations for Saturday's game in Iowa City. With the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments right around the corner, this week's Thursday-Saturday setup could serve as an ideal, if particularly challenging, segue.

"Growing up as a kid, you watch it on TV and you talk about you can't wait to get there," Taylor said of March Madness. "I'm here again. This is my third year. I definitely live for games like this, going on the road, and live for playing in the NCAA Tournament in front of thousands of fans and trying to bring home a national championship."

Visiting Breslin

This will be Taylor's third trip to the Breslin Center. UW upset MSU in the "banner game" Taylor's freshman year, thwarting the Spartans' title hopes on that day, but lost convincingly last season in East Lansing.

"The Breslin Center I would probably have to say is one of the top three arenas in the conference," Taylor said.

Why?

"The Izzone, man," Taylor added, referring to the Spartans' student section. "All those white T-shirts. The fans are right down on you, right behind the bench. And they stay crazy the whole game… It is definitely a tough atmosphere."

The atmosphere for Wisconsin-Michigan State games has been amplified in recent seasons by the rivalry that has developed between the schools.

"The media and the fans, they've hyped it up so much since Coach (Bo Ryan) has been here that I think the Michigan State and Wisconsin game is probably the biggest rivalry in the conference," Taylor said. "We can't get into that. It's another game that we're just going to have to focus on and take care of business."

What: Wisconsin (19-8 overall, 9-5 Big Ten) at No. 25 Michigan State (19-9, 7-7)
When: Thursday, March 2 at 6:04 p.m. Central
Site: Breslin Center (14,759) in East Lansing, Mich.
Broadcasts: Televised live on ESPN. Live radio broadcast on Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series notes: Michigan State leads the all-time series 64-54 but Wisconsin has won seven of the past eight meetings… the Spartans hold a 39-14 edge in East Lansing.


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