EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo often has had his team peak at just the right time in March to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, it appears to be happening a little earlier.
The seventh-ranked Spartans are peaking right before our eyes, taking apart No. 15 Wisconsin 69-55 on Thursday night at the Breslin Center, just five days after winning at Ohio State.
The question is how long can Izzo’s team keep it going?
“Hopefully, we are peaking somewhat,” Izzo said. “But I think there is still a lot of upside.”
Senior captain Draymond Green led the Spartans with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while sophomore point guard Keith Appling added 20 points.
“We still have a lot of room to grow,” Green said. “It’s two big wins for us, but guys aren’t getting satisfied. We have a lot of work to do.”
The Spartans (21-5, 10-3) regained a share of first place in the Big Ten, tying Ohio State with five games remaining.
Both teams are on the road this weekend. Ohio State visits third-place Michigan on Saturday, while Michigan State plays at sixth-place Purdue on Sunday.
The Spartans became the first team to shoot 50 percent against Wisconsin all season. MSU hit 24-of-46 (52.2 percent) field goals against the nation’s top-ranked defensive club.
The 69 points were the second-most allowed by the Badgers in their 26 games. Iowa scored 72 in a seven-point win on Dec. 31.
“To do that against Wisconsin is impressive,” Green said.
“I think we did it the right way,” Izzo added.
Much of the damage in the first half came in transition. MSU was credited with 15 fast-break points, a rarity for a Wisconsin team to allow.
Too many “point blank” shots, according to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.
The Badgers, desperately in need of scoring, have started going to the offensive boards much more than in the past. That’s created some opportunities for opponents to run, which Michigan State point guard Appling exploited.
Appling outplayed Wisconsin senior point guard Jordan Taylor, who made just 3-of-13 shots.
“Appling creates a lot,” Izzo said. “Sometimes he’s a one-man break. He is as quick a guard as I’ve ever had getting from one end to the other.”
Green recorded his 14th double-double of the season.
“Just another day at the office for him,” Izzo said.
Michigan State’s defense, ranked 15th in points allowed (58.6 per game) and fifth in opponent’s field-goal percentage (.374), just keeps getting better and better.
Wisconsin shot 34 percent (18 of 53).
This is Izzo’s type of club. It has great team chemistry with Green leading the way, it plays lockdown defense and it dominates the glass most nights (MSU actually was outrebounded for only the third time all season, 33-30).
Wisconsin came in on a high, having won seven of eight since a 59-41 loss at Michigan on Jan. 8, but the Spartans made Ryan’s team look inferior.
Ryan used to be Izzo’s nemesis, winning 11 of their first 14 meetings.
Not anymore. Michigan State swept the two-game season series and has beaten Wisconsin five of the last seven times.
Michigan State’s 69 points were 19 more than Wisconsin had been giving up.
“He’s doing a great job with this team,” Ryan said of Izzo. “It’s the truth.”
Wisconsin (19-7, 8-5) stayed in fourth place in the conference, but fell two games off the pace. The Badgers play three of their final five games at home, including Sunday against Penn State.
Michigan State made it look easy at times against a Badgers team that came into the game ranked No. 1 nationally in points allowed (50.3 per game) and second in opponent’s field-goal percentage (.368).
Much of MSU’s offense was triggered by its defense getting stops, including forcing turnovers. MSU’s final basket of the half was a great example. Taylor had to force up a 3-point attempt with the shot clock winding down. Green grabbed the airball and flipped it ahead to Appling for a lay-up.
“We’re aiming for a Big Ten championship,” Appling said.
They just took two enormous steps, so large that maybe it’s these Spartans, not the Buckeyes, who have emerged as the Big Ten favorite.
The two appear to be on a collision course to decide the conference champion on March 4 when they meet again in East Lansing.
Individually, Michigan State’s players aren’t as impressive as the Buckeyes’ Jared Sullinger & Co. — but as of right now, Izzo has the better team.