Michigan St-Wisconsin rivalry good as Big 10 gets

Michigan St-Wisconsin rivalry good as Big 10 gets

Michigan State vs. Wisconsin lacks the history of Michigan-Ohio State, to say nothing of that border war's hype. It doesn't cause statewide angst like Michigan-Michigan State. There's not even a cool trophy for the winner, like Paul Bunyan's Axe or the Old Brass Spittoon.

When it comes to Big Ten rivalries, however, there's none better than the Spartans vs. the Badgers.

Not recently, anyway.

``Not good on the heart, but great environments,'' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. ``I don't know how many times I heard last year, if you didn't care who won those games, they were really fun games to watch. From that standpoint, they're fun.''

No teams have been better in the Big Ten over the last three years than Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) and Michigan State (4-4, 1-3). The Badgers have won 17 conference games since 2010, with Michigan State second with 15 wins. They've had a hand in the last two Big Ten titles, splitting it in 2010 and winning their respective divisions last year.

The last six games between Michigan State and Wisconsin have been decided by a total of 31 points, with the teams separated by three points or less in half the games. One of the bigger wins during the stretch was actually the wackiest, a 37-31 Michigan State victory last October that ended then-No. 4 Wisconsin's national title hopes. Michigan State blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, only to have Kirk Cousins throw a 44-yard, deflected Hail Mary heave on the game's last snap.

Six weeks later, the Badgers got their payback, beating the Spartans in the first Big Ten title game to earn their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.

``(The rivalry) most definitely keeps growing,'' said Montee Ball, whose fourth touchdown sealed Wisconsin's 42-39 victory in the Big Ten title game. ``Like Coach Bielema said, it comes mostly from respect. When you play them, you know it's going to be a really physical game, a four-quarter game. That's what you want as a football player.''

But their yearly grudge match, at least in the regular season, ends with Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium. The teams are in opposite Big Ten divisions, and theirs was not one of the rivalries protected with a crossover game. Wisconsin instead is assured of playing Minnesota every year, while Michigan State gets Indiana.

``Obviously, we built up a nice little tradition,'' Bielema said. ``There's certain things that, when we split the divisions, were going to go away. Unfortunately, this is a by-product of that.''

Unlike the last three meetings, when both teams were ranked and chasing the Big Ten title, Saturday's game is unlikely to have any wide-ranging impact. Wisconsin trails Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division, though neither the Buckeyes nor the Nittany Lions are eligible for the conference championship or a bowl game. Michigan State is struggling to keep itself bowl eligible, having lost to Iowa in double overtime two weeks ago and to Michigan last week on a field goal in the final seconds.

The Spartans also lost to Ohio State by a point in their Big Ten opener.

``We've lost very, very close football games so the foundation, I don't really worry about. We have a program in place,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ``We're playing very well on the defensive side of the ball and we need to play to our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. We need to push through the tough times.

``In the end, these things will shape you as a person, I truly believe that. Under adversity you'll see your biggest growth,'' he added. ``We'll be there on Saturday. We'll be ready to go.''

Wisconsin isn't exactly where it wanted to be, either, having lost to what has turned out to be a very good Oregon State team and then losing late at Nebraska. But the Badgers have turned things around the last few weeks, led by Ball and fellow running back James White. The two combined for 712 yards rushing in the last two games. With 10 touchdowns in the last four games, Ball is five shy of the all-time NCAA record.

The Badgers are averaging nearly 450 yards of offense over their last five games, and 34 points. They've outscored their last three opponents 69-21 - in the second half.

``Defensively, they've always been solid. But they've done things offensively to capitalize on their personnel and they've put themselves in positions to win,'' Dantonio said. ``I think they've been extremely productive in rushing for 400 yards last week and the week before that. They've been dominant.''

And Wisconsin is at home, where it has won 21 straight. Only LSU, with 22 straight victories at Tiger Stadium, has a longer winning streak at home.

``We know we'll get Michigan State's best game of the year coming in here this weekend and we're excited for that challenge,'' Bielema said. ``To get them here in Camp Randall is something we've been looking forward to. ... We're excited to get Camp Randall rocking.''

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.


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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did


Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.


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