The final buzzer rang at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., signaling the end of Wisconsin's B1G Tournament run along with any hopes Bo Ryan and the Badgers had of seeing a number one next to their name in the NCAA Tournament.
Less than 24 hours after Wisconsin put the finishing touches on a wire-to-wire victory over Minnesota, Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans flipped the script on the Badgers. The Spartans used a nearly-perfect first half to hold off a late Wisconsin run, securing an 83-75 victory, and with it, a trip to the B1G Championship game.
Before heading to the locker room at the half, with his team down 43-26, Bo Ryan asked, "I'm looking for my team, have you seen them?" The question, however funny Ryan intended it to come off as, was a fair one.
Wisconsin shot an arctic 28 percent from the field in the first half, hitting only seven of 25 shots. The Badgers finished with two less field goals than the Spartans had assists. If Frank Kaminsky – 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting in the first half – had not shown up, that 17-point deficit could very well have been a 27-point hole.
Conversely, the young men in Michigan State uniforms were every bit the antithesis of Wisconsin. The Spartans shot 65.4 percent from the field in the first half. Describing their play as merely "hot" just wouldn't do Michigan State's performance justice.
What Michigan State presented today in Indianapolis, Ind., was an apex performance by an exceptionally talented team that has endured a tumultuous, roller coaster season filled with setbacks, disappointments and short-lived spurts of greatness. Health was the Spartans fiercest opponent this season, and it appears they have finally conquered it.
Ten minutes into the game Michigan State looked like they might never miss again, having connected on 10-of-12 shots from the field. Adrian Payne and Denzel Valentine combined for 23 points on a collective 9-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-4 from behind the arc. The Spartans ended the half with nine assists on 17 made field goals.
This was either the most beautiful half of basketball your team had played all season or the ugliest – it all came down to what school's name was on your shirt.
As Michigan coach John Beilein – fresh off a win over Ohio State – watched the Spartans morph into 1985 Villanova from the stands, his face may have shared the collective emotion of every other NCAA tournament-bound coach in the nation; I really hope this team ends up on the other side of my bracket.
Eventually, Bo Ryan did find the team he was looking for in the second half. Wisconsin "won" the second half 49-40, including beating Michigan State in every meaningful statistical category. Unfortunately for the Badgers they found their will to win just a little too late. Against a lesser team Bo Ryan and his boys may have been able to turn this game around, but spotting a talented team like Michigan State a 17-point lead is just too much of a hurdle to overcome on tired legs.
Right from the tip Michigan State made it a point to get the ball in transition. The Spartans superior speed and athleticism allowed them to convert fast break lay-ups and find men streaking into position for open three-point conversions. While Michigan State would win the fast break battle 15-6, the offensive strategem employed by Izzo was far more important than the nine point transition advantage implied.
Wisconsin's usually reliable bench was a no-show this game, and a huge reason why the Badgers second half runs were continually thwarted by Michigan State. Just one day after Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koening combined for 29 points they contributed an all-but-meaningless three points against the Spartans professional, composed defense.
Every time Wisconsin mounted a run in the second half someone from Michigan State would step up to quell any rising momentum. It was Payne knocking down a jumper over Kaminsky. It was Gary Harris attacking the rim and knocking down foul shots. It was Branden Dawson knocking down a momentum-crushing mid-range shot after Wisconsin's Josh Gasser converted a huge three point play.
This was a total team effort by the Spartans. Every Michigan State starter scored in double-figures, led by title-hungry senior Adrian Payne, who posted 18 points on an effective 7-of-10 from the field.
Maturity is a staple of Tom Izzo teams. Today against the Badgers that maturity was on full display, showcasing to the country what this team can be when fully healthy.
Michigan State has used 15 different starting lineups this year. This lineup – Payne, Appling, Dawson, Harris and Valentine – will be the one Izzo hopes can lead him to yet another Final Four appearance.
Wisconsin likely will find a two or three beside its name come tournament time. Not as good as a one seed of course, but Bo Ryan is not one to lose too much sleep over his tournament seeding.
For Michigan State – currently projected as a four-seed in Joe Lunardi's bracketology – a B1G Tournament Championship could prop them up as a two or three seed, depending on how the dominoes fall. To accomplish that, they have one remaining obstacle: the B1G regular season champion Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan bested the Spartans in their two matchups earlier this year. Izzo isn't one to suffer three game losing streaks, especially against in-state rivals. Look for this one to be an especially feisty matchup between two battle-tested teams.
The Spartans will take on the Wolverines for B1G tournament supremacy tomorrow afternoon (CBS, 3:30pm ET).