No. 14 Michigan State became the leader of the pack with an impressive road victory against No. 8 Wisconsin on Friday.
The Spartans will try to remain on top of the Big Ten in another road test against No. 17 Illinois on Tuesday night.
Michigan State beat the Badgers 86-74 in a game it led most of the way. That lifted the Spartans (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten) into first place in the conference standings. Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State each have two Big Ten losses.
The Spartans had been ranked in the Top 10 until losing at home to Northwestern on Jan. 15. They had plenty of time to prepare for their trip to Wisconsin and made the most of it.
“Definitely a wake-up call,” freshman guard Max Christie said of the loss to the Wildcats. “I mean, you can’t drop Big Ten games at home, and that loss to Northwestern sort of woke us up. We came into (the Wisconsin) game, and this was a must-win game for us.
“After we lost to Northwestern, we needed some sort of game to pick up the slack, a big win in general against a great Wisconsin team. We came in here planning that we were going to come out with a W.”
Mission accomplished, due to superior offensive execution. Michigan State shot 52.7 percent from the field and made 22 of 28 free-throw attempts.
The points were well distributed, with Malik Hall leading the way with 14 points. Christie, Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points. Michigan State raced to a 16-point halftime lead. The Badgers got within six points midway through the second half, but the Spartans pulled away again.
“I thought we could’ve crumbled when they got it down to six,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “You get it down to six or eight and (the Kohl Center) started hopping, man, like old times. The ghosts of the past were coming out. But the huddles were good and Malik was really good in there, A.J. was really good. … I was proud of them for that because this is one of the more hostile environments. This is one of a couple of my favorite places to ever play, and it didn’t disappoint anybody. It was a hell of a game for us.”
Illinois (13-5, 6-2) has lost its past two games after reeling off six straight victories. The Fighting Illini dropped a double-overtime decision to Purdue, then got blown out by Maryland 81-65 on Friday.
The latter loss comes with an asterisk. Illinois’ top player, Kofi Cockburn, missed the game after entering concussion protocol. Maryland’s Donta Scott scored 25 points without Cockburn patrolling the lane.
“It’s a hard deal when you’re without arguably the best player in college basketball,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Donta Scott did a great job of taking advantage of the fact he wasn’t there.”
Underwood was disappointed his team didn’t show much fire in Cockburn’s absence. It was outscored 44-30 in the second half.
“Outplayed us, outfought us, out-competed us,” Underwood said. “We just, for whatever reason, didn’t have a ton of fight.”
This will be the first of two regular-season meetings between Michigan State and Illinois. They’ll play again in East Lansing, Mich., on Feb. 19.
–Field Level Media