Michigan State is healthy, and it proved it will be a force to be reckoned with in the NCAA tournament when it took on Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Saturday.
Its 83-75 win against the Badgers was evidence of just that.
Spartans head coach Tom Izzo knew that taking down the Badgers wouldn't be easy, telling reporters what he expected of them, via Gillian Van Stratt of mlive.com:
You are not speeding (Wisconsin) up very often. I mean, I’ve seen teams press them—doesn’t work. I’ve seen teams zone them, I’ve seen teams do different things. I don’t think you can really change. (Bo Ryan) is very good at it, it’s one of their strengths, they don’t turn it over because they don’t make a lot of mistakes, because they don’t take a lot of chances. They’re not gonna get sped up very often.
Izzo's expectations proved true.
Wisconsin hardly turned the ball over, and playing defense against it proved to be a tough test. The Badgers' inefficiencies on offense were simply a result of shots not falling—not any complex defensive schemes from Izzo and his coaching staff.
The first half was all Spartans. They began the game on a 7-0 run prior to a Wisconsin timeout. Following the timeout, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky scored 10 of the team's next 11 points. He was determined to not let the game get out of hand.
Michigan State used a balanced effort in the first half. Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice all contributed early.
Payne had 12 first-half points, but Valentine stole the show in the first 20 minutes of play. He had 11 points and was able to convert on three from deep. His ability to hit with a hand in his face will make him a weapon heading into the NCAA tournament.
Kaminsky ended the first half with just 12 points after scoring 10 quickly to start. Michigan State began zoning in on the center, playing aggressive defense down low and putting a hand in his face on the perimeter.
After the first half, the Spartans were clearly at an advantage, which showed in the 43-26 score.
Nobody saw the surge in the second half from the Badgers coming.
Kaminsky again took over, scoring nine of his team's first 14 points in the half. The Badgers were unable to go on a run, though, as Appling and Dawson continued to convert on jumpers and layups to keep their lead intact.
A great three-point play by Josh Gasser with just under six minutes to go appeared to signal a momentum shift in Wisconsin's favor. That three-point play cut the Spartans' lead to 70-63. Izzo called a timeout during their next possession in order to regroup.
The Spartans scored out of the timeout, and then Dawson blocked a shot on the other end to shift the momentum back.
The ensuing four minutes or so featured missed opportunities for both squads. Uncharacteristically, both teams turned the ball over several times. Kaminsky and Payne struggled to convert on a few of their attempts, and the game began to move a little slower than it had before.
The final two minutes of play were about ball control for the Spartans. The Badgers had to intentionally foul in order to guarantee themselves more possessions, but it was all for naught. Kaminsky fouled out and his teammates were unable to make shots.
Michigan State moves on to the final.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: A-
Aside from the cold spell in the middle and end of the first half, Kaminsky was the Badgers' most valuable player. His ability to stretch the floor as a big man made him a key weapon in this one.
Kaminsky's defense was a little shoddy at times. His footwork appeared slow along the perimeter, and his awareness when defending in the paint seemed to come and go.
Offensively, he was a weapon. Kaminsky was able to carry the Badgers through stretches when his teammates weren't converting. He is the sole reason why the team mounted a comeback in the second half. Without him, this would have been a blowout.
He scored 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting (2-of-5 from deep). He was perfect from the charity stripe at 8-of-8.
Despite Wisconsin's loss, the Badgers will be a part of the NCAA tournament—and they'll be a high seed. Kaminsky will be an important piece of the puzzle.
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: B
Valentine did what the Spartans asked of him against the Badgers. As a weapon beyond the arc, he did not disappoint. He drained a trio of threes in the first half, and it appeared as if he was in for a high-scoring game.
Overall, Valentine finished with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
He quieted down a bit in the second half, scoring much less and focusing on defense and setting up his teammates with open looks. With seven rebounds and three assists, Valentine helped out in all facets of the game.
Valentine's ability to convert from three will be immensely important for the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. Picking up threes in transition or converting from the corner when wide open can be the difference between winning and losing a close one.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State: B+
With a similar skill set to Kaminsky, Payne had the task guarding him throughout the contest. Kaminsky put up a good number of points, so Payne's efforts of limiting him didn't exactly pan out.
That being said, the Spartans big man did well enough on offense to mitigate Kaminsky's impact.
He converted on both of his three-point attempts and was 7-of-10 from the floor overall for 18 points. He was disappointing on the glass, though, pulling down just four boards.
Payne was important in this one because of his ability to provide the Spartans guards with a safety net down low. In a four-guard set like Izzo often runs, a center that can break up the swing passes on the perimeter with a look inside is key.
What It All Means for the NCAA Tournament
Michigan State's win gives it an opportunity to win the Big Ten conference and possibly earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. A loss to Wisconsin would have been disappointing given the newfound health of the squad, and it probably would have resulted in a No. 4 seed in the tournament.
Now, even if the Spartans lose to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament final, they are deserving of that No. 3 seed.
The Badgers were in the running for a No. 1 seed in the East—not after losing in the semis, though. Wisconsin was a favorite entering the tournament, and its chances at the No. 1 seed took a big hit with the loss.
Wisconsin is still a very strong team and should lock up a No. 2 seed, putting it in good position to make a run in the big dance.