Once again, the Badgers surprised me. And I can't really say that I'm surprised.
Confusing? Well, it should be.
Despite barely getting by two mediocre Big Ten teams in consecutive games, Wisconsin almost pulled off the upset Thursday night at Purdue. And this wouldn't have been just any upset. This would have been over No. 10 Purdue, without the services of Jon Leuer, and on a court (Mackey Arena) where the Badgers have won just three times since it opened in 1968.
So it's fair to say that I'm a little surprised that a missed Trevon Hughes runner was all that separated Wisconsin from a win Thursday night.
Then again, this year's Badgers have surprised everyone this year. They've gotten out to a 16-5 start when everyone predicted they would struggle. Then, they played poorly three consecutive games after everyone jumped on their bandwagon. Then, last night, I thought they would lose to Purdue by 15 points. Not even close. So I guess the lesson here is that trying to predict this year's Badgers is pretty close to impossible.
That said, lThursday night's 60-57 loss was anything but a well-played game. If Keaton Nankivil didn't have a career night, Purdue would have run away with it.
They'll have to regroup quickly, however, because the No. 5 Michigan State Spartans come to town looking to gain a firm grasp on the Big Ten title race.
Led by point guard Kalin Lucas, the Spartans are 18-3 and are riding a nine-game winning streak, including a 54-47 win over Wisconsin. However, MSU has looked anything but unstoppable. Despite their best-ever start in Big 10 play, the Spartans certainly have their weaknesses, as evidenced by consecutive one-point wins over Minnesota and Michigan.
Let's not kid ourselves though. Michigan State is good. Really good.
Wisconsin, without Leuer, will need to play one of their best games of the year if they hope to beat the Spartans.
Wisconsin's trio of guards (Hughes, Jordan Taylor, and Jason Bohannon) have to score more than the 28 combined points they had against Purdue. Michigan State has its own trio of guards (Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Chris Allen) that will surely play a huge part in their game plan and Wisconsin's backcourt will need to match their production.
The Badgers can't expect Keaton Nankivil to score 25 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three-point range. Although I'd love to think that Nankivil could do that every game, he can't. The Badgers do need Keaton to get some inside production though. At 6'8", Nankivil should be working inside, not launching threes. Although watching him drain shot after shot last night was one of the more exhilarating moments I've experienced while watching the Badgers, in my heart I know that's not what his role should be.
And you know Michigan State will try to work it inside with their pair of double-digit scoring forwards. Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green will both try to take advantage of Leuer's absence and I'm really not all that confident that any of Wisconsin's forwards can stop them.
The Badger bench will also need to play a larger role than they have throughout the season. Ryan Evans and Rob Wilson have averaged only 4.2 and 3.1 points a game this year, respectively, and the rest of the bench has been virtually nonexistent.
Despite all of the reasons Wisconsin should lose this game, I don't think they will. One thing they've got going for them is the fact that the game is in the Kohl Center. They're undefeated on their home court this year and have one of the best records in the country while playing at home under Bo Ryan.
That said, a Badger win over Michigan State next Tuesday would probably surprise many people after watching their game last night. Not me.