In a return to the Kohl Center for the just the second time in 2023, the 18th ranked Wisconsin Badgers (11-4, 3-2 Big Ten) once again struggled to produce a quality performance, as they could not contain the unranked Michigan State Spartans (12-4, 4-1) at home, 69-65.
As has been the case with almost every game this season — and certainly in Big Ten play — offensive dominance from either side was less than present. Without Tyler Wahl, who missed his second straight game with a lower body injury, the Badgers struggled to find outlets on offense when they needed it most, especially late in the second half.
While Wahl’s replacement, Carter Gilmore, did contribute five points, the absence of Wahl’s leadership and experience has left a clear gap in Wisconsin’s offense. On the other hand, Steven Crowl and Chucky Hepburn were still able to carry their offensive weights, contributing 19 and 14 points, respectively. Missing from the action were Jordan Davis and Max Klesmit, who combined for just seven total points.
As the Badgers quickly matched up to the recent stellar guard play of Michigan State’s AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker, Wisconsin found themselves in an immediate hole to open the game. While Crowl quickly asserted his paint presence, the rest of the Badgers struggled early on both ends of the floor.
Shooting a cold 1-4 from the field to start prompted early rotation from Greg Gard, as Isaac Lindsey, Markus Ilver, Connor Essegian and even Chris Hodges found themselves on the court early into the game. While Essegian tried to spark the Wisconsin offense with a quick seven of his 13 points, and Hodges contributed his first two career points, Wisconsin still could not find their way back into the lead.
A five point Ilver run finally gave the Badgers their first lead of the night just before halftime at 29-28, but another five point run from the Spartans saw Wisconsin down two going into the break, 33-31.
In the opening minutes of the second half, both teams started clicking on offense. Essegian continued to heat up with another 3-pointer, and Crowl found his way down low with 15 second half points. Still, a lack of defensive intensity allowed Michigan State to cling to a small lead.
A Crowl-led run late in the second half supplied by Hepburn’s five assists, topped off by a massive Gilmore 3-pointer, gave Wisconsin a 59-54 lead with just under four minutes left to play. However, a pair of forced misses from 3 late in the shot clock damaged the Badgers, as they fell into a three minute scoring drought. The Spartans capitalized, and Michigan State veterans Malik Hall and Joey Hauser lifted the green and white to a late lead with just over two minutes left.
The two teams traded massive baskets with only a minute left, as Hepburn knocked down a smooth step-back jumper to tie the game at 63 with 57 seconds left — forcing Tom Izzo to call a late timeout. A layup down low for the Spartans put Wisconsin down two with 30 seconds left, and the ball went to Hepburn who, in a painfully similar fashion to the Wake Forest loss, forced an unnecessary 3-pointer up and missed it short. One foul led to another, and Michigan State closed out their road upset over the Badgers, 69-65.
While Hepburn is undoubtedly known for his clutch shooting — see his shot against Purdue at the end of last season — some of his recent decision making has been rather questionable, most notably against Wake Forest and now Michigan State. It is true that he’s dramatically improved on his 3-point shooting — 34% last season compared to 48% now — but sometimes it seems as though he is getting carried away with his improvements by making irrational decisions. Also concerning in this particular late-game scenario was the move by Gard and the coaching staff to bench their most prolific scorer, Crowl, off the floor when the Badgers only trailed by two.
On the other hand, criticism is steered clear of Crowl as of late. Averaging 50% from the field and 13 points a game, Crowl has been the most unstoppable force on the Badgers’ offensive approach. In just his five Big Ten games so far this season alone, he is averaging 16 points per game, including close to 20 in the past few matchups. His increasing skill, footwork, finishing abilities and overall floor presence have been a large reason for the Badgers’ success so far this season, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Wisconsin suffered their second straight Big Ten loss and dropped to fifth in the conference, and their rest-of-season path isn’t looking any easier. As Gard and his team stare down the Big Ten gauntlet, there’s no doubt that hard work will be needed to continue a potential championship-defending campaign.
The recent defensive performances from Wisconsin have not been reflective of the earlier season’s standards, and if the Badgers want to keep the regular season title in Madison, Gard’s guys must revert to their iconic brand of intense Badger defense. Of course, a large part of this stems from a hole usually filled by Wahl, but defensive responsibility should fall on every guy on the court.
No. 18 Wisconsin will look ahead, attempt to halt their two game losing skid and steady themselves in the Big Ten on the road against Indiana and Trayce Jackson-Davis — one of the conference’s best players this season. The game tips off on Jan. 14 at 12 p.m. on CBS and the Badger Sports Network.