When Trevon Hughes put up a three-pointer with 3:19 to go and the Badgers already up by 14, you have to imagine the only thought going through his head was, "Why not?"
In the early going, the Badgers looked to be in the middle of another tight, competitive game against a strong conference rival, especially since Spartan big man Goran Suton was having a career day. Suton went on a four-minute rampage early in the game during which the Spartans went from a 7-6 deficit to a 16-11 lead -- all points coming courtesy of Suton. He was having a career day, one that almost saw him almost come up with a double-double at halftime (12 points, 9 boards).
Brian Butch ended Suton's ten-point outburst with a three-ball, and everything changed.
You have to give it to the Polar Bear -- a big man who can knock down triples does indeed change everything. Suddenly he's not just a goon waiting to clean up an offensive board or flush a dunk under the rim, he's a sniper -- someone who can pull back, get you three quick ones and sprint down the court to block a shot. That's something that a lot of teams lack and many teams can't defend. The Spartans certainly couldn't.
Tom Izzo said that much of the Spartans' problem last night resulted in missed assignments on Butch. That's no surprise. But the fact that Badgers turned the ball over just ONE TIME -- the WHOLE GAME -- also helped. The Spartans just had six turnovers, so this was a really cleanly-played game. That also helps the Badgers' case: a lack of turnovers means that MSU didn't give the game away, the Badgers won this one through sheer force of will. Tip of the hat also to Michael Flowers, who singlehandedly took Spartan point-generator Drew Neitzel out of this game. (BadgerCentric notes that Flowers has been holding his elbow a lot during the last two games, which could be a source of worry ... or could be nothing. I dunno.)
The Wisconsin Sports Rant pretty well encapsulates my thoughts in this line: "It’s ironic that as good as the Badgers were last year, the 2008 edition might have a better chance at playing deep into March." Exactly! This team is playing much more complete basketball -- strong defense, scoring from every player, lots of steals and blocks, very little fouling, great discipline and clean ball-handling -- than last year's star-studded team. I don't see a slip against the likes of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi this year.
There are a couple of bigger-picture, near-future things to love about this game as well: first, with the game being on ESPN2 instead of the Big Ten Network, there's a chance that more poll voters and (more importantly) NCAA Tournament Selection Committee members saw the Badgers put MSU in the hurt locker. At this point I have to think that Wisconsin is regarded as one of the lower three-seeds, but that dominant performance could well have changed some minds. BadgerCentric makes another astute observation:
We've lost four games, to teams ranked #7, #16, and #21. We've beaten the #5 team in the country, which has the same record as us, at their place, without our point guard. We've swept the #12 team in the country and now beaten #19. You're telling me there's 12 teams with a better resume than that?
The other thing is that the Badgers overcame what should be their final challenge of the regular season and now have the softest, fluffiest schedule of all the remaining Big Ten title contenders. MSU is now officially out of the title picture, so (as suspected) Indiana and Purdue are the other teams coming down the stretch.
The Badgers have a home date with Penn State (5-10 in conference) and close out the season with a road game at Northwestern (1-14). Purdue still has road tests at Ohio State and (to a lesser extent) Michigan, and IU's next game is on Sunday at MSU -- and the Breslin Center has been a house of horrors for the Hoosiers: they've won just once there since it opened. (That, friends, was in 1989.)
Bottom line: you have to like the Badgers' chances at an outright conference title.