In late January, when Wisconsin (7-10 Big Ten, 14-16 overall) fell to No. 2 Michigan State (15-2, 27-3), a talented trio of Spartan frontcourt players proved too much to handle for the undersized Badgers. Even in potential moments of UW positivity, success still came at a cost. When Michigan State’s 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward Nick Ward barreled into Wisconsin’s 6-foot-10, 215-pound Nate Reuvers for one of Ward’s four fouls, Reuvers certainly remembered the consequences.
“I felt it a little bit,” Reuvers recalled.
Reuvers said Friday afternoon Ward is one of the biggest frontcourt players he’s guarded all year. The Badgers’ problem with matching up against the Spartans, however, is that Ward is far from MSU’s only frontcourt threat.
When the teams square off Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin will have its hands full yet against stopping Ward, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges.
Assistant coach Howard Moore said that to contain them UW must work effectively early in the game and play solid team defense, including not leaving its potentially undersized bigs on an island — all of which is easier said than done.
Junior forward Andy Van Vliet, who played a career-high 24 minutes and scored 14-points in the Badgers’ 70-64 win over Northwestern Thursday night, added that MSU’s frontcourt is “very physical.” Redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ noted that Ward’s strength and Jackson Jr. length create a difficult matchup problem.
But, the second half of the team’s first matchup in East Lansing in which Wisconsin actually outscored MSU 40-39 gives UW an air confidence this weekend.
In their first contest, Happ scored 23 points, but he received little help from his teammates, especially some of the Badgers’ other key big men like Reuvers, redshirt freshman Aleem Ford and Van Vliet. The aforementioned trio combined for a mere seven points in 36 combined minutes of action.
By comparison, Ward finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. Jackson Jr. added 11 points seven rebounds and four blocks. And all the while, Wisconsin also couldn’t stop sophomore forward Miles Bridges, who tagged the Badgers for 24 points and seven rebounds.
The gameplan, though, for Sunday’s matchup isn’t drastically different than it was a few weeks ago, according to Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard.
In fact, Gard said for almost 20 years, the gameplan to stopping the Spartans has remained similar.
“You have to be really good in transition. You have to be really good on the offensive glass and you have to play well,” he said.
Sunday is Senior Day in Madison, and the Badgers return home riding a 3-game winning streak. They hope to end the regular season on a high-note and walk away with both a victory and a few less bruises after banging with MSU’s big men down low.
Tipoff is set for noon at the Kohl Center.