It's been a bad week for the Big Ten's best. And it got worse Sunday afternoon in East Lansing.
Wisconsin, a loser earlier this week at Ohio State, could never catch up to an at-times hot-shooting Michigan State team, walking away with an 84-74 loss, its fourth in its last five games.
The Badgers joined the other two teams at the top of the league standings, Purdue and Maryland, in losing this weekend. Altogether, those three squads have lost their last five games.
Michigan State, meanwhile, came away with a huge win over a team still for the moment ranked 16th in the country. The Spartans are in an unusual spot under Tom Izzo, not far from the NCAA tournament bubble. With the Badgers sputtering, who knows if this is the win to solidify Sparty's spot in the field of 68. But it sure looks like it could be that type of victory and certainly is one that strengthens the resume.
Michigan State went on an early 15-4 run and built a lead as big as 13 in the first half. But Wisconsin closed the opening 20 minutes on a 14-2 run of its own to come within a point by halftime.
The Spartans were red hot shooting the ball after halftime, making their first five shots of the half and then using a 16-5 run to again reach a 13-point advantage. Michigan State was shooting well over 60 percent from the field in the second half with under eight minutes to play. The Badgers shrunk the gap to six with four minutes left, but a big three-point play from Nick Ward with under two minutes to go again sent the lead into double digits and ended Wisconsin's threat.
Ward was a monster for Michigan State, scoring 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds. In addition to some big three-point plays, he finished off a couple alley-oop throws from teammates. Miles Bridges scored 17 points, with Matt McQuaid adding a big 15 points off the bench, 11 of them coming in the first half. Cassius Winston was also in double figures with 10 points.
Some offensive troubles continued to haunt the Badgers, who have struggled to produce consistently during this losing stretch. They shot just 38.2 percent from the field after halftime and once again got a subpar performance from Ethan Happ, who scored just eight points and fouled out. Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, but it was an inefficient day. He was 8-for-22 from the field and an ugly 4-for-12 from the free-throw line. Bronson Koenig scored 17 points though was 5-for-15 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3-point range.
Michigan State went 21-for-23 from the free-throw line, while Wisconsin was an awful 13-for-25 there. The Badgers had an 18-10 edge in second-chance points, but the Spartans had a huge 30-10 advantage in bench points.
Wisconsin is safely in the NCAA tournament, of course, but this is a bad time of year for the Badgers to be struggling. There are just two regular-season games remaining, home games against Iowa and a red-hot Minnesota team, for Greg Gard's group to get things straightened out. Though whether it'll be able to do that is a mystery. While Wisconsin has surpassed the 70-point mark in each of its last three games — Sunday's 74 points were the Badgers' most in a game since Jan. 24 — the defense has suddenly hit hard times, too, with Ohio State and Michigan State scoring a combined 167 points in the last two games.
The Badgers sit at 22-7 overall and 11-5 in the league with two games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament in Washington.
Michigan State is positioning itself well to get a higher-than-believed seed in that tournament, now 18-11 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten. The Spartans have won four of their last five and six of their last eight, though only one of their five February wins has come away from East Lansing. Two road games close out the regular-season schedule for Tom Izzo's team: at Illinois on Wednesday and at Maryland on Saturday. Wins in those two could land Michigan State one of those coveted double byes.