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As usual, the Big Ten kicks off the college basketball weekend with a marquee matchup. This week, the game of the night features the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers hosting the No. 14 Michigan State Spartans. These are two of the three Big Ten teams that currently have just one conference loss, making this an important game in the regular-season title race.
The Spartans are hoping to rebound from a puzzling home loss to Northwestern last week. That loss put an end to Michigan State’s nine-game winning streak, which included wins over Louisville, Minnesota (twice), and Penn State. However, outside of a win over Connecticut, those are MSU’s most impressive wins of the season. With losses to Kansas and Baylor, the Spartans have faltered against top competition this season and have had almost a week to dwell on that loss to Northwestern.
The Spartans have excelled this year behind a group of versatile wings. Senior Gabe Brown has finally blossomed, averaging a team-high 14.2 points per game. Freshman Max Christie, a top-20 recruit, hasn’t disappointed either, averaging over 10 points per game and giving Michigan State another capable shooter. However, he had an off game against Northwestern with only six points, so the Spartans can’t afford for him to struggle. The likes of Malik Hall, Marcus Bingham, and Joey Hauser also give Michigan State veteran forwards who can hit the boards and are capable scorers.
Meanwhile, the biggest difference-maker for the Spartans this year might be Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker. Michigan State was lacking suitable point guard play last season but Walker has helped to solve that problem. Granted, he’s not a big scorer, but Walker’s 5.2 assists per game have made a big difference. Backup point guard A.J. Hoggard is also dishing out 4.5 assists per game. The obvious caveat is that the Spartans don’t get a ton of scoring from their backcourt outside of Christie. But Walker and Hoggard do a great job of running the offense and getting the rest of MSU’s scorers involved.
The Badgers might be the hottest team in the Big Ten right now, winning seven straight games, including five straight conference wins. Wisconsin is 15-2 overall, losing only to Providence and Ohio State. The Badgers have also scored wins over Texas A&M, Houston, Purdue, and Ohio State, so they already have an impressive resume.
Johnny Davis is the biggest reason for that impressive resume. The sophomore is averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, putting him front and center in the race for Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s even gone above his season average in points in three of his last five games, showing up when Wisconsin needs him. His running mate this season has been Brad Davison, who is averaging 15.1 points per game and is an even bigger threat from the perimeter than Davis. However, while Davis and Davison handle a bulk of the scoring for Wisconsin, the Badgers don’t have a bona fide playmaker who can create for others and they don’t have dangerous outside shooters outside of Davis and Davison.
It’s also worth noting that Davis is also Wisconsin’s leading rebounder, so the Badgers could use more of a presence inside. That being said, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl have been steady contributors, averaging 11 and 8.8 points per game, respectively. Seven-footer Chris Vogt also provides some much-needed size for the Badgers, even if he’s not an established scorer. However, depth is one of Wisconsin’s few problems, as only five players average at least seven points per game and only seven players average at least 10 minutes per game. That means Davis and Davison play a lot of minutes and are asked to carry the Badgers game after game.
This is probably a bigger game for the Spartans, who are coming off a loss and still haven’t beaten one of the Big Ten’s elite teams. Of course, the Badgers are at home and are arguably the hottest team in the conference right now. While Michigan State has a deeper team and more capable scorers, the Spartans need to have an answer defensively for Davis and Davison. Few teams have been able to provide one this season, giving Wisconsin a clear edge in this game thanks to their star power.
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