No. 16 Wisconsin big test Michigan State freshmen

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo must rely heavily on a quartet of freshmen with senior guard Eron Harris out for the season. The Spartans passed their first test without their third-leading scorer but now face a bigger challenge.

Following an 88-72 home victory over Nebraska on Thursday, the Spartans play at Breslin Center for the final time this season against No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday.

Michigan State’s freshmen excelled against the Cornhuskers, as forward Miles Bridges and center Nick Ward scored 20 points apiece, shooting guard Joshua Langford added a career-high 17 and point guard Cassius Winston collected eight assists.

The Spartans bounced back from a 17-point loss at Purdue on Saturday, in which Harris suffered a significant knee injury.

“I do think they responded,” Izzo said of the freshmen. “I just think they have to learn how to play both ends of the court. For the last two games, we are fouling too much. We have to do a better job with that.

“Are the freshmen going to take over? I mean Nick and Miles have been fairly consistent. … They definitely looked more aggressive; they looked more comfortable. That part of it was great.”

At 17-11 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten, Michigan State appears to be in good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid. With three regular-season games remaining, as well as the conference tournament, it still has work to do to secure a spot.

A home victory over the Badgers would certainly enhance the Spartans’ resume.

“Typically, what we do here is play through our seniors,” Langford said. “But with Eron being out, and with two other seniors Ben (Carter) and Gavin (Schilling) also out, we want to up our intensity even more.

“We thought we were giving 100 percent, we need to give 120 percent. Because we actually need it with Eron being out. Everyone needs to pick up the slack. I feel like everyone did a great job of that (Thursday).”

Michigan State could be catching Wisconsin at a good time. The Badgers were 21-3 after an eight-game winning streak but have lost three of the last four. They were upset 83-73 by unranked Ohio State on Thursday.

Wisconsin (22-6, 11-4) dropped a game behind first-place Purdue and could slide out of the rankings with a loss on Sunday. The Buckeyes shot 50 percent from the field against the Badgers, including a 10-for-16 success rate from beyond the arc.

“When you let them get going early and let them get some easy buckets, the hard buckets become a lot easier,” senior guard Bronson Koenig told Madison.com. “They were hitting everything, even guys who aren’t the best shooters were hitting shots.

“We’ve just got to take more pride on the defensive end. I don’t think we were that bad offensively, but it doesn’t really matter when we can’t get a stop.”

Koenig scored 27 points against Ohio State, but sophomore center Ethan Happ (14.4 points per game) was held to four and senior forward Nigel Hayes (13.4) was limited to seven.

Coach Greg Gard is more concerned about the team’s defensive intensity.

“Our offense wasn’t what got us in trouble (Thursday),” Gard told Madison.com. “It was our inability to stop them, especially in the first half. We dug ourselves such a big hole, and we have not been porous defensively, that disconnected or disjointed, in a long time.”