Wisconsin-Michigan St. Preview
A last-minute rally against Michigan State has morphed into a monthlong winning streak that's saved Wisconsin's season.
The eighth-ranked Spartans have come out of a midseason slump as well, further raising the stakes of Thursday's anticipated rematch between the two 2015 Final Four participants.
An afterthought in the Big Ten race following a 1-4 start in league play, Wisconsin (16-9, 8-4) has gone from a likely NCAA Tournament outsider to a projected invitee by ripping off seven consecutive conference wins that include three ranked opponents. The turnaround began with a stunning late comeback over the then-No. 4 Spartans on Jan. 17, in which the Badgers scored the final five points and earned a 77-76 victory on Ethan Happ's hoop underneath the basket with 10 seconds remaining.
The carryover from that momentum-building result hasn't stopped. The Badgers further enhanced their profile with an overtime win over then-No. 19 Indiana on Jan. 26 and Saturday's 70-57 upset of then-No. 2 Maryland that halted the Terrapins' 27-game home winning streak.
''We've come a long way,'' said interim coach Greg Gard, now 9-4 since taking over following Bo Ryan's abrupt retirement in mid-December. ''I knew we were taking steps in the right direction. It was just a matter of time before we put a more complete game together. Tonight was as close to the 40 minutes of complete basketball that we've played.''
The Wisconsin loss was part of a three-game skid for Michigan State (21-5, 8-5), which has been nearly perfect since. The Spartans have won five of six, with last week's 82-81 overtime loss at then-No. 18 Purdue the blemish. Their last four wins have come by an average of 25.0 points.
Pinpoint perimeter shooting has been a constant during the surge, with the Spartans connecting on 51.9 percent of their 3-point attempts over the last five games and making 10 or more in each. Denzel Valentine is 24 of 42 during that stretch and is coming off a superlative performance on Valentine's Day. The national player of the year candidate amassed 30 points and a career-high 13 assists in Sunday's 88-69 victory over Indiana, among the three teams the Spartans and Badgers are chasing in the Big Ten.
"We felt like we let one slip away from us (against Purdue) and we deserved to win that game," he said. "We came out here and took it to Indiana a little bit."
Matt Costello added a career-high 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds. The senior forward is averaging a conference-leading 10.2 rebounds in Big Ten play and had 13 along with 18 points in the teams' first meeting.
Wisconsin also has been shooting well, hitting 36 of 71 3-point tries over its last three. Vitto Brown is 6 for 9 over the past two and followed an 18-point effort in last Wednesday's 72-61 win over Nebraska with a career-high 21 against Maryland.
Bronson Koenig, who recorded a career-high 27 points against the Spartans last month, is 9 of 20 from 3 in the last three contests while Nigel Hayes is averaging 20.4 points during the winning streak. He had 25 in the previous matchup.
The Badgers have won three straight in the series, including an 80-69 overtime win in last year's Big Ten Tournament championship game, but have lost eight in a row in East Lansing since a 68-64 overtime win on March 2, 2004.