The burgeoning rivalry between Wisconsin and Michigan State didn't let us down on a sunny afternoon in Madison. Traevon Jackson's jumper with 2.1 seconds left gave Wisconsin a 60-58 victory. This puts the Badgers at 19-5, and looks to be a sign of good things to come as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Michigan State now sits at 20-4.
Keith Appling did not play again, due to a lingering wrist injury, but Adreian Payne returned to the starting lineup for Michigan State, and made his presence known. In his first start since January 7, Payne put the Spartans on his back and led the scoring charge with a game-high 24 points. He did so both inside and outside, and it didn't seem like his previously-injured foot bothered him. That's a wonderful sign for Spartan fans, because the injury bug has hit them hard, and it's nice to see a healthy Payne impact the game like we all know he can.
The reason why Payne was forced to score so much was due to Gary Harris' abysmal shooting performance. He was 3-20 from the field, including 0-7 from the line. This was quite the flukey shooting performance for the normally-efficient Harris. His shot seemed to go in and out way too many times. But the biggest problem was that Harris had plenty of good looks. The Spartans' ball-movement was solid, so Harris had the opportunity to step into a jumper and knock it down. They just didn't fall. In addition, there were plenty of times where Wisconsin was forced to switch defensively, leaving a bigger and slower man like Frank Kaminsky to guard Harris. That's a clear mismatch, and leans heavily in Harris' favor. He never took advantage of those mismatches, and struggled the whole game.
Harris struggled so much because of Josh Gasser's excellent defense. That's the Gasser we know and love, and the Gasser that will propel this team to an NCAA Tournament run. When he shuts down the opposing team's best wing player, rebounds well, and knocks down open threes, Wisconsin can beat anybody. He's never going to lead the team in scoring, but his steady presence and efficient shooting gives Wisconsin a great chance to win against anybody. I can't wait to see who he'll match up with in the Tournament, and how he'll handle it.
It's a good thing Gasser shot well because Ben Brust did not. I wrote about this in my preview of this game, and hoped this would be the game where Brust bursts (lol) out of his shooting funk. Shooting 1-8 from three, including 2 air-balls, did not help. But Sam Dekker stepped up and made some big threes, and Kaminsky had a nice offense game, and successfully drove to the basket a few times. That's a part of Kaminsky's game that sometimes worries me, because he's not going to beat anyone in a footrace. When he does drive, it forces the defense to shift towards him, and opens up better looks on the outside. He did just that, and the offense looked fine.
Wisconsin's offensive leader was America's sweetheart, and my favorite person, Nigel Hayes. He had 14 points, and looked awesome in the post. If before the season, you told me that Michigan State would be forced to double-team Nigel Hayes. I would have called you a damn liar. And if you told me that once Hayes received this double-team, he would handle it perfectly by spinning out of it and get to the line, I would have called you a bigger liar. But Hayes did that all game long. His foul shooting was improved this game, going 8-12 from the line, which is nice, but still scares me. When he's on the floor, the offense runs through him. That means there's a very good chance he will get to the line if he touches the ball. It's almost guaranteed that Hayes will be at the line in a close, Tournament game. I love Nigel, but I will be terrified in that scenario.
You could kinda tell that this game was played at noon on a Sunday. The crowd was pretty lame, and both teams looked sloppy through the whole game. But as the clock ticked down, the game heated up. Frank Kaminsky hit a huge 3 with 30 seconds left to put the Badgers up by 5 (it was funny because after he shot it, he charged the rim to get a rebound because he didn't think he made it - love u Frank), but Gary Harris responded with a jumper to keep it a 3 point game. After a Brust missed free-throw, Adreian Payne buried a three with 12 seconds left to tie the game. Then, it was all up to Traevon Jackson.
You could feel the collective uneasiness of the student section as Jackson hustled up the court for the last shot. He drove left, pulled up, and knocked down a jumper with 2.1 seconds left for the victory. After his recent poor performances and constant vitriolic criticism of his play, it's great to see him be the hero. And to Badger fans who don't like Trae - get used to him taking the last shot. There was never a doubt he was the go-to guy as the clock ran out.
Wisconsin's next 4 games are against Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana. That's a grueling stretch, which is why this win means so much. They can carry these good vibes into the meatiest portion of the schedule. Luckily for Michigan State, there's no reason to push the panic button. When your best guard shoots 3-20, you're unlikely to win, especially on the road at the Kohl Center.
Who's ready for March?