NEW YORK — Five days ago, when the Wisconsin men’s basketball team fell at home to Michigan State, Brad Davison addressed the team. The freshman guard, fresh off a career-high 30 points, told them not to worry: “They’d rather beat them next week, anyways.”
Next week is here and after surviving Maryland, the No. 8-seed Badgers (8-11 Big Ten, 15-17 overall) will get their third crack at the top-seeded Spartans (16-2, 29-3). They know that Friday afternoon they’ll need all hands on deck to upend a team that’s bested them twice already this year.
UW players are quick to say that MSU is two deep at every position, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Cassius Winston set a Big Ten record for 3-point percentage at 56.5 percent and buried the Badgers with a perfect 6-of-6 performance last time out. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges are each likely NBA lottery picks and Nick Ward is as well-rounded a paint player as there is in the country.
“There's a lot of holes to fill,” assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “You plug one hole and another one starts leaking. We gotta plug all the holes somehow, some way.”
In the team’s last meeting, UW’s approach to slowing down an electrifying Spartan offense was to stick junior forward Khalil Iverson on Bridges and leave him there. It worked. Bridges missed 10 consecutive shots and finished just 3-of-15 on the day, including 0-of-7 from beyond the arc.
But, like Oliver said, plugging that hole opened up the court for Winston, who ripped the Badgers’ hearts from their chests each trip down the court. Iverson switched onto Winston for the final few minutes of the game and held him scoreless, but the damage was done. Now, UW needs to find a way to corral them both defensively.
Having struggled so much this season, the Badgers are relishing the opportunity to prove themselves at the world’s most famous arena. And with a pair of losses to the Spartans already, redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ said the excitement has reached a fever pitch.
“Especially with how up and down our season's been, we definitely want to play the best of the best just to show how good we actually are,” he said.
Happ never quite found a rhythm in two games against MSU, shooting a combined 13-of-36 from the floor. But the Badgers will need him to keep the offense flowing as they prepare to take on a team that leads the nation in opponent two-point percentage.
“Gotta be more effective in there against those big guys,” Happ said. “It's tough — you got the length and size of Ward and you got Jackson coming over to double or help, so it's not easy, but that's something that has to happen for us to win.”
The odds are certainly stacked against the Badgers, but it isn’t the first time that’s been true in the postseason. They limped into the Big Ten Tournament a year ago and nearly took home the crown before knocking off the defending champion Villanova Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament. A year before that, Bronson Koenig hit a miracle three from the corner against Xavier to keep their season alive. There is magic hiding in the Wisconsin locker room.
The Badgers just need to find it.
Tipoff from Madison Square Garden is set for 11 a.m. CT.