When Matt Costello's mid-range effort at the buzzer fell short, Wisconsin fans breathed a sigh of relief. It can't make up for the extreme disappointment this season has been so far, but it at least gave the Badgers something to celebrate. Wisconsin escaped the Spartans 77-76, moving them to 2-4 in the Big Ten and 10-9 overall. While the Badgers are still a major long shot to make the NCAA Tournament, there's potential for this stretch to propel Wisconsin toward the finish line the rest of the season.
Before going forward, we'd be remiss to not look at the heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Northwestern earlier in the week. With Alex Olah still sidelined, Northwestern relied on their best player, Bryant McIntosh, to completely dominate the game. He finished with 28 points, five assists and four rebounds, and despite Wisconsin's best efforts to guard him (five committed turnovers), he still was able to make the big plays down the stretch.
This felt like one of those must win games to keep Wisconsin's chances somewhat afloat, especially beating a Northwestern team that had compiled a gaudy 14-3 record overall before. No one on Wisconsin had a bad game, a terrible habit that had shot the Badgers out of previous games, but Nigel Hayes was the only player who lit it up. Hayes finished with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, but besides for Ethan Happ, no other Badger finished in double figures.
Against a solid but unspectacular Northwestern team, Wisconsin needed to produce a better effort than this. It was the third consecutive defeat by five points or less, with all three coming against at least potential tournament teams. For a team needing wins in any manner possible, this was an absolute crusher.
While Wisconsin did respond well with the major victory over Michigan State, their upcoming slate allows them a few easier games with almost every game the rest of the season becoming must win. This starts in State College with a pesky Penn State team also near the bottom of the Big Ten, but Jordan Dickerson, Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor are fresh off a victory at Northwestern that Wisconsin so desperately needed.
Despite not having the season they've wanted up to this point, the 2015-16 season for Wisconsin can be a phenomenal barometer as to how good the Badgers can be next season. Every single scholarship player returns, and it seems that Nigel Hayes will very likely forgo the NBA and return. Whether Greg Gard will be there or not is another conversation for another day, but creating the foundation for a great team next season is the bare minimum at this point. The Badgers season isn't over, but if they drop Thursday's tilt at Penn State, you can pretty much hang it up for good.