Semifinals – Michigan State
Previous meetings this season
February 12 (at Wisconsin): Spartans 67, Badgers 59
Should Wisconsin be fortunate enough to advance to the semifinals, their foe will most likely be the tournament’s top seed, Michigan State.
The Spartans currently rank No. 6 in the nation and have been on a tear as of late, winning two in a row and seven on their last eight. The fact that they have been so successful without injured stars Nick Ward and Joshua Langford is even more impressive. Most recently, they took care of business against No. 7 Michigan in East Lansing last Saturday.
One of those seven wins came against Wisconsin in Madison about a month ago in a matchup between two of the nation’s elite defenses. While the game certainly lived up to that billing, newly-crowned Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston proved to be the difference for the Spartans, putting forth a superstar effort on both ends. In addition to leading all scorers with 23 points, Winston helped shut down Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice on the perimeter with some pesky defense.
For his part, Ethan Happ matched Winston blow for blow with his 20 points and 12 boards. I’d imagine the two stars will each get theirs again in this hypothetical matchup, so the outcome will come down to which additional players step up.
In that regard, the status of Ward will be especially crucial. The Michigan State big man has missed the Spartans’ last five games, but it sounds like he will be active in some capacity for the Big Ten Tournament. When healthy, Ward is one of the best post players in the conference, averaging 15.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game this season. Even if he’s at only 75 percent, his return would be bad news for the Badgers’ upset hopes.
Michigan State and Wisconsin are each fortunate enough to boast an All-American on their roster, but the level of success both squads have had this season doesn’t happen without the pieces around Winston and Happ. That being said, even without a healthy Ward, I think the Spartans’ rotation has been far more consistent than the Badgers’ this season, particularly with rock-solid seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins. Sophomore Xavier Tillman has also emerged as a force up front in Ward’s absence.
With these two outstanding defenses, we should expect nothing less than another grind fest. In the end, I think the difference in this one will be simple: top to bottom, Michigan State just has the more talented rotation and the star power and experience to not only win the Big Ten Tournament but the National Championship as well. In addition, it is rarely wise to pick against Tom Izzo in March.
Unfortunately, this is where I think Wisconsin will bow out.