East Lansing, MI
The 21-5 (8-5) #8 ranked Michigan State Spartans are hosting a much improved Wisconsin Badger team tonight at the Breslin Center. When the game tips off at 9PM on ESPN the Spartans will be facing a team that upset them (77-76) the last time they played in Madison on January 17. The Badgers parlayed that win into a current seven game winning streak.
Izzo said of tonight’s opponent that, “Wisconsin, they may be the hottest team in the nation. I don’t know anyone that has won seven in a row. I am sure somebody, but not many. (Nigel) Hayes and Bronson Koenig have hurt us. The first game hurt us a lot. I think it is some of their unknown guys like Vito Brown is playing at a different level right now than he was earlier. Their center has been good too. They’re averaging a lot of threes, shooting more threes. There are scoring more from three, but they are also beating teams like us and Indiana from the three point line. Or three point line I meant before and free throw line I think is a problem. Things have to be combated. Ethan Happ is the center that I was talking about. He’s been effective. For a redshirt freshman he’s got a knack about him. He’s got a way to score, he scored that winning basket. He has that step step move, he’s got very quick feet and he’s one of the leaders in the league with steals. Being a post player that means it is hard to move the ball in there because he can get a around people and I guess in a way without fouling.”
Tom Izzo says that missing a key player lost in the last game will hurt against a Badger team where he would have picked up some significant minutes. “So we are concerned about Wisconsin and that is where all of our thoughts are. But we’re concerned about us to. So as to Kenny Goins, what I said after the game nothing has really changed. He’s laid up and on crutches. He’s going to be out anywhere from two to four weeks. What does that mean? It means nothing good for us. He played well in the last game, played 15 minutes, so it will be an amazing change.”
So what has gone on in Madison to help the Badgers get on this win streak and turn their season around? The Spartan head man explained his theory. “They did struggle early and you don’t know what was going on. What was going on with Bo (Ryan) what was going on and a couple of players trying to find their place. I think Hayes is a better player and I think they’ve given other players a chance too. That center has come on. Happ has become a read solid center in this league right now and that has been a difference. It isn’t like they are shooting the ball extremely well, they are shooting the ball well. They are shooting the ball pretty well from the three. They are getting to the line a lot more. That is one thing that they are doing. Is that because they went back to the swing offense? They don’t run the swing offense totally now, but probably a little bit more than they were doing early. Is that because we all go through as you get beat a game and then all of a sudden you are worse the next game. I don’t know if that happened to them.”
But with Bo Ryan leaving after the season, the man he wanted to replace him had to take over, at least forcing Athletic Director Barry Alvarez to name Greg Gard the interim coach. “I will say it now, I have said it before and I will say it at the end of the year. The guy proved he deserves the job in my humble opinion. I only say that because when you do come into a situation where you replace a legend, one replace a legend and two to get the respect of the players and to get them to play and reach down that says a lot about him right there. Whether they get to the tournament or win a bunch more games or don’t, he’s already captured that and I think that speaks volumes for him. They got to make a decision, there could be a million different reasons, I just think that he has proven that he can go against some of the best teams, he can get his players to bring him up off the carpet or the canvas because they were knocked down, especially early in the season, and every game he’s been in has been competitive. Their losses were by three, by one, by six, by five. So they got to do what they got to do but, and I respect their decision, but I felt it before we played them. I said, because of knowing him and the work he’s done on the road and listening to Bo talk about him I thought he was deserving of the job. Now he’s had kind of a test, a pre-test and I think he’s done a hell of a job.”
But Izzo is introspective when people talk about his Spartans. For sure the Badgers are better than when they played a month ago, but he wants people to know that so are his Spartans.
“We are also a different team, too. The day before, we lost Tum. And again, and I’ll say it ‘til I’m dead: Nobody will appreciate him as much as I will. But nobody will appreciate how hard it is to take Denzel on a Friday and say, ‘By the way, you’re playing strictly the point tomorrow,’ and change that. That almost speaks about how impressive Denzel Valentine has been. I mean, I know we all think a guard’s a guard. In our system, that’s a major change. He did it, and he did it still not healthy. I mean, he wasn’t back yet back, which is the other thing I hope national media take a look at. He missed four or five games, right? But we all know he wasn’t back for two or three games after that to full strength.”
He went on to say of the Spartans maturation that, “I think we’re a different, better team. Losing Goins hurts; he played pretty well in that game. I think they’re a different, better team. I guess one thing we can see is who really got better and how much better. But we can’t let them shoot 36, 37, 38 free throws – we’re not beating my son’s ninth grade team. You just can’t have that. So we gotta play smarter, which is what I said back then between how we handled the end and what we did. However they go, we just gotta play smarter.”
Izzo likes that these two teams are playing a month apart and not like Iowa where it was such a quick turnaround to play. “I think it’s good. I like having some separation compared to the Iowa stuff or the Ohio State things we’re going to be going through. I’d prefer some separation – some teams maybe got better, some teams maybe didn’t. But at least you can compare a little bit better.”
The biggest reason in my opinion that the Badgers are so much better is that they are playing with a much improved Nigel Hayes. The Badgers junior is playing great as the season comes down the home stretch and Izzo notices both Hayes and Koenig.
“More aggressive. More confident. I thought he was living and dying with the three a little bit. He can still shoot one, but now he’s getting in that 15-foot range and backing people in. He’s getting to the foul line a lot. He’s just been more aggressive. What is he? A third-year guy. This is the norm. The exception is what you see once in a while. This is the norm. It’s a good norm. He has been a key. (G Bronson) Koenig has been a pain in our tail. He had that game and he hadn’t had a game close to that since and so maybe he likes us, maybe we’ve gotta do a better job with the way we’re defending him. But there’s definitely been some improvement on that team and no one better than Hayes because he passes it, makes other people better that way. He can rebound. He defends pretty good and he definitely has improved his shooting a lot like Denzel did.”
All of this lines up for what should be a great contest tonight at the Breslin.