B1G basketball notebook: The conference's hottest team is ... Michigan State
Michigan State traveled to Wisconsin on Tuesday night winners of a half-dozen games in a row.
But you can pardon some if they thought the winning streak was a bit of a mirage, considering the last 5 victories had all been at the Breslin Center, after the Spartans started the run with a win at Penn State. But validation would come only after MSU earned a victory in a hostile Big Ten environment.
Enter the Badgers inside the Kohl Center on Tuesday in Madison. The Spartans pulled out a win over Wisconsin — although the Badgers were without leading scorer Tyler Wahl — by rallying from a 5-point deficit with 4 minutes to go. Michigan State made its last 8 field-goal attempts and final 4 free throws to come back, winning 69-65.
Its winning streak is now at 7, including 2 victories on the road, and jumps the Spartans’ Big Ten record to 4-1, tying Purdue at the top of the conference standings.
“We got some big stops there; we made some big buckets,” said Michigan State forward Joey Hauser after finishing with 20 points and 8 rebounds. “And it wasn’t just one guy. … It just speaks to our leadership, making winning plays at the end of games.”
It helps that the Spartans are healthy again, after Jaden Akins and Malik Hall missed games in November and December because of injuries. They’re back, adding offense to Michigan State’s historical tendency to play physically tough on defense and on the glass.
But the Spartans can provide further validation as a conference contender soon, as they travel to Illinois on Friday, then host Purdue in an MLK Day matinee on Monday.
The Badgers need Wahl
Wisconsin started the season 8-2 in games decided by 10 points or less, including a 6-2 mark in games with margins of 5 or fewer.
They were impressive marks, telling of Wisconsin’s ability to make winning plays in the closing minutes. But it was also when Wahl was healthy. The senior forward, who leads the Badgers in scoring at 13.2 points per game (and is 2nd in rebounding at 6.4 per contest), has missed the past 2 games with an ankle injury. It’s clearly hurting Wisconsin, which dropped a closer-than-the-final-margin 10-point game at Illinois, then was upended at home by 4 against Michigan State.
Wahl is day-to-day. After Tuesday night’s loss to the Spartans, Badgers head coach Greg Gard was asked whether Wahl could be back for Saturday’s game at Indiana. His response: “I don’t know.”
Fouling in Happy Valley?
Could Penn State get some foul calls when it takes on Indiana in a critical game on Wednesday night in Happy Valley?
Nittany Lions head coach Micah Shrewsberry certainly hopes so. Following PSU’s loss to Purdue on Sunday, Shrewsberry lamented his team’s lack of foul calls, not only against the Boilermakers — Penn State shot only 3 free throws — but during the entire Big Ten season. In particular, Shrewsberry believes forward Jalen Pickett should be getting to the line more frequently, as he’s only been there an average of less than 3 times per game so far this season.
“You get frustrated after a while,” said Shrewsberry following the Purdue loss. “This isn’t like a one-time thing. This is an every-time thing. I know I haven’t been here (very long). I know I haven’t done anything in my career to earn any kind of goodwill from the officials. But we shot 3 free throws. They shot 7. It was a really physical game. The game didn’t warrant 10 free throws by both teams. Both teams are out there fouling.”
Penn State has lost 2 straight, dropping to 2-3 in the Big Ten. Indiana has also dropped 2 straight, lowering its conference record to 1-3. While it might not be a must-win game, at least in terms of NCAA Tournament résumé, the loser might have a nearly impossible task of climbing back into the Big Ten title race. And for the Hoosiers, that would be a huge disappointment, considering many had them as the preseason favorites.
Indiana, which is without starters Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson, needs to increase its defensive intensity, as the Hoosiers have given up an average of 84 points per game to their past 5 Power 5 opponents.
“From a defensive standpoint, we have to be solid throughout the game,” head coach Mike Woodson said on his radio show on Tuesday, “and you can’t play in spurts where you blow a lead or your opponent gets a big lead and now it’s catch-up time and you’re desperate.”