Michigan State vs. Wisconsin: Are Spartans Suddenly the Big Ten Favorite?

Sean BielawskiContributor IIIJanuary 22, 2013

Jan 22, 2013; Madison, WI, USA; Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo directs his team as they play the Wisconsin Badgers during the first half at the Kohl Center.  Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State kept a couple of winning streaks alive in its 49-47 win at Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

First, the No. 13 Spartans beat the Badgers for the fourth consecutive time, upping Tom Izzo’s record against Bo Ryan at Wisconsin to just 10-13.

Second, Michigan State has now won six conference games in a row and sits atop the conference standings at 6-1, still tied in the loss column with No. 2 Michigan and No. 7 Indiana.

While Michigan still looks like the conference favorite, the Spartans’ win at the Kohl Center—where Ryan is now 86-10 in conference games—was more proof that Michigan State is a force to be reckoned with in a stacked Big Ten and that the Spartans are playing as well as anyone in the league.

“I liked what I saw the whole time because they competed and stuck together,” Izzo said during his postgame interview on ESPN. “It wasn’t pretty, but Wisconsin is a hard team to play.”

The Spartans took control of the game with a dominant defensive performance in the final period. Wisconsin struggled to get quality looks throughout the second half, constantly having to force shots at the end of the shot clock.

Michigan State allowed Wisconsin to make six shots from three in the first half, but made some halftime adjustments to limit the Badgers to just 2-of-10 from beyond the arc in the second half. Wisconsin managed just one made field goal in the final 7:44 of the game.

“The execution was awful,” Izzo said during his halftime interview on ESPN. “Defensively, we were switching everything. That wasn’t the game plan.”

Point guard Keith Appling and wing Branden Dawson combined to score 39 of Michigan State’s 49 points.

Saturday against Ohio State, Appling scored six points in the final minute to seal a 59-56 win. For his efforts, Izzo named Appling a captain on Monday but said that he wanted Appling to be more assertive earlier in the game (via the Detroit Free Press).

He did just that, scoring 10 points in the first half and nine in the second while also making plays for others.

Dawson finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, further showing he has distanced himself from the incident last week where he and teammate Adreian Payne got into a scuffle at the team hotel (via the Detroit Free Press).

Tuesday was the second consecutive game Izzo went with a bigger starting lineup, inserting the 6’10” Payne in alongside 6’9”, 270-pound Derrick Nix.

The results have been encouraging. In the last two games, Ohio State and Wisconsin combined to shoot 34.7 percent from inside the arc. Things are not coming easily at the rim against Michigan State, something the Badgers found out the hard way making 8-of-27 from two-point range.

Now, the ultimate defensive test will come Sunday when the Spartans travel to take on No. 7 Indiana. The Hoosiers are scoring 84.4 points per game, which ranks second nationally, and Michigan State’s front line will have its hands full with Cody Zeller.

It will be the first of two meetings between the Spartans and Hoosiers. Michigan State also still has two games with in-state rival Michigan. The Wolverines also have two games remaining with Indiana.

That’s what will make this Big Ten race so much fun. Even with unbalanced scheduling, the elite in the league will play home-and-homes with one another.

While Michigan State is playing as well as anyone in the conference right now, the race is just beginning.