Spartans know how to match Badgers' grit
MADISON, Wis. — Tom Izzo stands 5-foot-9 and Bo Ryan a few inches taller, but watch the basketball teams each coach puts on the court, and you'd think the two men were identical twins.
Defensive toughness? Check. Deliberate halfcourt offenses? Check. An innate ability to make hustle plays and win games? Check.
It's no wonder, then, that when Izzo's Michigan State team and Ryan's Wisconsin team meet, outcomes often are decided in the final seconds, as was the case Tuesday night. This time, No. 13 Michigan State escaped with a gritty 49-47 victory at the Kohl Center to remain in first place in the Big Ten.
"Our two teams are very even teams," Izzo said. "Last year, we were a hair better maybe with Draymond (Green). I don't think there's anything one way or another."
On Tuesday, neither team shot the ball particularly well, but the Badgers (13-6, 4-2) were especially putrid in every area — 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws. The Spartans (17-3, 6-1) can be held responsible for Wisconsin's poor field -goal shooting and perhaps in some small way for the free throws as well. They ground up the Badgers' depleted rotation and created tired legs at the line.
Wisconsin made 8 of 27 2-pointers and 8 of 27 3-pointers (29.6 percent). The Badgers also uncharacteristically shot 7 of 18 from the free throw line (38.9 percent). The final dagger came when redshirt freshman George Marshall missed his first free throw with three seconds remaining and Wisconsin trailing by two points. He then missed the second attempt on purpose but failed to hit the rim, giving the ball back to Michigan State.
"I can't shoot them," Ryan said of his team's struggles. "It's a craft. You get good at something. We've got guys who are pretty good free throw shooters who aren't making their free throws."
This isn't the first time in recent memory the teams have played a close contest. Last year, Michigan State won for the first time in Madison since 2001 when Ryan Evans' banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer in overtime was disallowed and Michigan State edged Wisconsin, 63-60.
"I just love playing against Wisconsin," said Spartans point guard Keith Appling, who scored a game-high 19 points. "Each year they have competitive guys that push me and make me better, so I just look at it as a challenge. These past couple years it's worked out in my favor and my team's favor."
Wisconsin entered the game facing a substantial disadvantage in the frontcourt because of an eye injury to backup center Frank Kaminsky that put him in street clothes. And for two evenly matched teams, it could have been the difference.
With the Badgers' frontcourt depth already wafer thin, freshman forward Sam Dekker picked up two quick first-half fouls, forcing Ryan to squeeze even more minutes from his starters — Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren. Bruesewitz (35) and Berggren (36) both played a season high for minutes. The trio combined to shoot 9 of 32 from the field (28.1 percent).
"I think it hurt them some," Izzo said of Kaminsky's absence. "He just gives them that dimension that he can pop and do some things. Yet at other times I worry about us having to go against smaller guys because they're quicker. They can take us off the dribble. …
"This is a good basketball team. They're going to win a lot of games."
Yet for the fourth straight game in the two teams' series, Michigan State was better and showed why in the final stages of the game.
Bruesewitz's tip in with 7:37 remaining in the second half trimmed Wisconsin's deficit to 45-43. But the Badgers registered just one made field goal the rest of the game — on a 3-pointer from forward Evans with 16.7 seconds remaining. Evans had been 1 for 19 on 3-point attempts this season.
"The basket just kept looking smaller," Ryan said. "Somebody is going to tell me in the last eight minutes our one field goal is a Ryan Evans 3? Go ahead, somebody tell me that. Oh, wait a minute. It did happen."
Izzo and Ryan are the two longest-tenured coaches in the Big Ten, and their hard-nosed personalities have certainly rubbed off on their respective programs. Izzo has won 202 games in 18 seasons and Ryan 136 games in 12 seasons. Ryan ranks first and Izzo fourth in career Big Ten winning percentage, and one of the reasons is simple: defense.
Wisconsin entered the night allowing 55.8 points per game and Michigan State 58.4 points. Not surprisingly, both teams lived up to their reputations. The Spartans just happened to live up to theirs a little better.
"They play good defense," Bruesewitz said. "They definitely do. Izzo does a great job with them. And they're very athletic. They can get up and cover a lot of space pretty quickly. We've got to get better looks."
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