After putting together arguably its best half of the season to cruise past Purdue, the stage is all set for Wisconsin.
The Big Ten tournament title, a chance for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a shot at redemption will all be on the line for the Badgers when they square off against the Michigan State Spartans Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the United Center.
A victory would give UW its third conference tournament title (and its first since 2008), and would put the Badgers in position to potentially earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament after both Duke and Virginia fell in the ACC tournament semifinals.
Not only that, but it will also give Wisconsin (30-3) a chance to enact a measure of revenge on the team that knocked it out of the Big Ten Tournament last year.
The Badgers met Michigan State in the semifinals of last season’s conference tournament, where the Spartans defeated them 83-75 before going on to beat Michigan in the final.
Now, the top-seeded Badgers will get another chance against the third-seeded Spartans (23-10), who mounted an impressive comeback to beat Maryland in the semifinals.
Senior guard Travis Trice scored 20 points and senior forward Branden Dawson chipped in 17 points and eight rebounds as Michigan State rallied back from a 16-point first-half deficit to top the Terrapins.
The Badgers and Spartans met once this year at the Kohl Center, where Wisconsin won 68-61 to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. In that game, senior forward Frank Kaminsky torched the Spartan defense for 31 points, his career high against a conference opponent.
It was a performance by Michigan State that left head coach Tom Izzo a bit less than impressed.
“I think a lot of people would debate when you said we played them,” Izzo said when asked about the previous meeting. “We were there. I’m not sure we played them.”
Since that loss, the Spartans have won four straight, defeating Purdue and Indiana to close out the regular season before besting Ohio State and Maryland in the conference tournament.
They’ll get another crack at the Badgers, but could have their hands full if the UW offense plays anything like it did in the second half of its semifinal steamrolling of the Boilermakers.
Wisconsin trailed 35-30 heading into the locker room after shooting just 37 percent from the field in the first half, but the Badgers came flying out of the gates to start the second half, putting together a 14-3 run.
Purdue cut the deficit to two midway through the half, but the Badgers stepped on the gas and ended the game on a 25-7 run.
The Wisconsin offense did this despite Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky not having his strongest showing. Instead, sophomore guard Bronson Koenig scored a career-high 19 points and junior forward Sam Dekker and sophomore forward Nigel Hayes added 15 points apiece as the Badgers put on an offensive clinic and outscored the Boilermakers 41-16 in the second half.
Now, their focus turns to the Spartans in what will be a meeting of the two longest-tenured head coaches in the conference, Izzo and Bo Ryan.
These two programs have met seven times previously in Big Ten tournament play, with Michigan State holding a 4-3 edge, but this marks the first time that they will square off in the final.
The Spartans are 4-0 in the championship game, while the Badgers are 2-3.
In addition to a conference tournament title and, potentially, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a victory for Wisconsin will tie the school record for most wins in a season. For the Spartans, a win would give them their second straight Big Ten tournament title and their third in four years, and would send them into the big dance with a great deal of momentum.
The next chapter of this rivalry between two powerhouse Big Ten programs is ready to be written, and there will be plenty on the line.
“They have a lot of people that are good. They’re very well coached, and I think it’s great for the Big Ten that the two of us are playing,” Izzo said. “We’ve been in some epic wars over the years, and I know I’m excited about the chance to play them because we were kind of the dark horse.”