Monday, February 19, 2007

Hey Badgers -- please don't look past Michigan State!

"Could we please stop with the talk about Sunday's Wisconsin at Ohio St. game until after the Badgers play at Michigan St. tomorrow night?" asks Lance Burri of the Badger Blog Alliance, echoing a thought I had as I watched the Spartans dismantle Iowa at the Breslin Center on Saturday. And one that Bo Ryan had, too, apparently:

Well, I just talked to the AP guy, with a New York accent, so I figure he’s from out East. And I told him, he asked me, when I was told by Brian what my reaction was and everything, and I told him, my kids have this number one red foam rubber thing in the house, in the closet, and it was a party favor from New Year’s Eve, those things you blow on, it rolls out. And I tore up some newspaper and threw that in the air, blew the thing, and ran around with the No. 1 sign, and then went back to my office and saw Michigan State go up 30-some on Iowa. Slowly went to the closet, put that away, put the party favor away, cleaned up the paper and went back to work. That’s what happened. So I was pretty excited until I saw the Iowa/Michigan State game, but then, of course, I told him that’s what ran through my mind.

Uh ... OK.

After MSU's lackluster performance for 80% of the game against Michigan, I wrote the Spartans off, thinking that this just wasn't the usually-competent squad's year. And then they came alive against Iowa, taking a 44-17 lead into halftime courtesy of an 18-0 run and an unbelievable 65% shooting percentage.

There are numerous reasons for taking the Spartans seriously, both current and historic. They're one of the greatest success stories of the past decade, appearing in the Final Four in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2005. Indeed, in odd-numbered years, Michigan State has had success; the odd year that's missing above is 2003, the year when the Spartans were bumped from the tournament after reaching the Elite Eight by the Texas Longhorns. Let's not forget that one of the wins the Spartans had en route to their national title in 2000 was over another Big Ten team that made the Final Four ... the Wisconsin Badgers.

This season, while they already have six conference losses, MSU is the only Big Ten team other than the Badgers and Ohio State that the Big Ten Wonk would consider as having a good offense AND good defense. With the crafty Drew Neitzel (who averages 18 points a game and is a 90% free throw shooter) and stellar freshman Raymar Morgan (who's scored in double figures in 15 of the 20 games he's participated in), this is a team to be reckoned with.

The storylines surrounding this visit to East Lansing don't bode well for the Badgers. Michigan State is a historically strong program with a proud tradition, and they'll be eager to help the Badgers shed that #1 ranking. They've got two games against UW in the next couple weeks. Since the Spartans are not assured a bid to the NCAA Tournament at this juncture, you'd better believe that those two games are looking like opportunities just waiting to be seized. Their coach, the wily Tom Izzo, has led teams into the fire before; he undoubtedly knows exactly the right words to use to motivate his current group of players. It's going to be a loud, intimidating environment for the visiting Badgers tomorrow.

Still, the Wisconsin players have given me no reason to believe that they won't go in to the Breslin Center and return to Madison victorious. Their focus has been superb; if they were able to get up and dominate Minnesota and Penn State last week, they'll be able to get up for the Spartans as well. They faced adversity on the road against Indiana, and now that they've been tested, they'll be prepared to enter hostile environs and succeed. Their big men, Goran Suton and Drew Naymick, aren't fit to carry the towel of Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma, or Jason Chappell; indeed, I'd wager that any of our three bigs would start over Suton and Naymick. They have no answer for Alando Tucker, and if they try to clog up his lanes, Kammron Taylor will pick them apart instead. And -- maybe most importantly -- the Spartans are the most turnover-prone team in the Big Ten ... and the Badgers are the least turnover-prone. Turnovers will kill tomorrow night. Hopefully the trends of the year to date continue.

The Badgers have the superior talent, tons of momentum, and a coach who just might be ready to take over the title of the league's best. They go to East Lansing and they win. Maybe not by a lot, maybe not in beautiful fashion ... but they do.


Gabriel said...

Excellent post. I too am always leary of games at the Breslin Center. Not only did Wisconsin lose to MSU in the Final Four in 2000, they also lost both regular season tilts, as well as the conference tournament championship. All told, they lost four times to that team led by Mateen Cleaves. However, I agree with your last two paragraphs wholeheartedly. This is a game where Wisconsin comes in extremely focused. They will NOT be looking past the Spartans. They will control the ball, pick the defense apart, an not let Neitzel or anyone else have their way. I think Wisconsin wins by 8.

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