Thursday night provides a big matchup in the Big Ten, as #8 Michigan State (20-5, 9-3) looks to remain tied for first place with a win over #17 Wisconsin (19-6, 8-4). Their first meeting, a 63-60 Michigan State win in overtime on January 3rd, ended with Ryan Evans' game-tying three being ruled to have come after time had expired, so the rematch in East Lansing will likely be just as competitive. The Badgers, who score 35.1% of their points from beyond the arc, shot just 5-for-22 from deep in the first meething and they'll clearly need to be better in order to win at the Breslin Center.
Michigan State allows opponents to shoot just 28.9% from three this season, a number that's second in the Big Ten (Wisconsin is tops at 26.7%). Clearly the focus of Michigan State's defensive efforts will be Wisconsin's senior point guard Jordan Taylor (14.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), who leads the team in both scoring and assists. Taylor's only shooting 33.3% from beyond the arc but remains more than capable of stringing a few together if left alone, and the Badgers have other capable shooters as well.
Josh Gasser (7.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Ben Brust (8.6 ppg) can both knock down the shot while forwards Evans (10.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Mike Bruesewitz (6.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) may not have the best percentages but neither will hesitate to put up an open shot. Clearly the key for Michigan State in defending Bo Ryan's swing offense will be to not give up open looks on the perimeter, and forward Jared Berggren (10.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is another player to keep an eye on, and they've shown throughout the season that they're capable of doing so.
The Spartans were a bit more balanced in the first meeting as Draymond Green finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds and Keith Appling added 16 points. Green (15.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.5 apg) is a coach on the floor for the Spartans, and his ability to do just about anything on the floor makes the senior one of the tougher matchups in the Big Ten. But Michigan State wouldn't be in first place if not for the growth of guards such as Appling (11.9 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Brandon Wood (8.6 ppg). This group has improved by the game, and that's one reason why the Spartans are a serious Final Four contender.
The same can be said of Michigan State's young frontcourt players, from the versatile Branden Dawson to returnees Adriean Payne and Derrick Nix. Dawson is an athletic above the rim finisher who's shooting at a 57.1% clip in his freshman campaign. Nix and Payne are more valuable on the defensive end of the floor but both can get some things done offensively as well. In the win at Ohio State on Saturday Payne made all six of his field goal attempts and scored 15 points, adding to the joint effort he and Nix put forth defensively against Jared Sullinger.
The difference could come on the glass, where Michigan State ranks among the best in the country. The Spartans currently boast a rebounding margin of plus-10.6, and their 13 offensive rebounds per game works out to an offensive rebounding percentage of 40%. Wisconsin isn't bad in this area themselves as they manage to grab 31% of their missed shots, but that's quite the gap when comparing the two teams. Michigan State grabbed 34.3% of their misses in the first meeting, and a number similar to that could prove problematic for the Badgers.
Also of note on Thursday night is NC State making the short trek to Durham to take on #4 Duke, and to say the least the Wolfpack can use a win of this caliber for their resume. Lorenzo Brown has been one of the best point guards in the ACC and he'll need to be that and then some against the Blue Devils, who are currently tied in the loss column atop the conference with North Carolina and Florida State. Austin Rivers looks primed to take off in the aftermath of the game-winner at UNC, but to be fair the freshman had been playing well before that. C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood will also need to step up for the Wolfpack as they look for their first win at Cameron since 1995.
As a result of Loyola Marymount's win at Saint Mary's on Wednesday night, Gonzaga will take the court at Santa Clara with a share of first place in the WCC on the line. It will also help the Bulldogs to not have to deal with the suspended Kevin Foster, meaning that Evan Roquemore is the primary scoring option to be concerned with. Even though this season hasn't gone well for Kerry Keating's Broncos (0-12 in league play) Thursday night's game provides the opportunity to salvage something from a disappointing campaign. California hosts Oregon in a game that's big on two fronts: Cal enters the game in first place a game ahead of three teams (including Oregon), and the Ducks are in dire need of a resume-building win and taking on the team with the Pac-12's best RPI is a great opportunity.
Lastly there's the second installment of the "Backyard Brawl" this season, with West Virginia looking for revenge as they visit Pittsburgh. Tray Woodall was outstanding in the first meeting, a Pitt win that ultimately did not prove to be the catalyst that Jamie Dixon's team needed to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid. The Mountaineers need to get rolling as well, as close losses can blend together when being evaluated by the selection committee if you have too many of them. Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli will lead the way inside but WVU really needs sound decision-making from guards Truck Bryant, Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds if they're to leave The Pete with a win.
Top 25 Games?
9:00 PM NC State at (4) Duke (ESPN3)?
7:00 PM (17) Wisconsin at (8) Michigan State (ESPN) ?
7:00 PM Virginia Tech at (21) Florida State (ESPN2)
?11:00 PM (24) Gonzaga at Santa Clara (ESPN2)
NCAA Division I Games?
7:00 PM Fairleigh Dickinson at Mount St. Mary's (ESPN3) ?
7:00 PM Florida International at Arkansas-Little Rock (ESPN3) ?
7:00 PM Lehigh at Bucknell ?
7:00 PM Louisiana-Lafayette at Denver (ROOT RM)?
7:00 PM Sacred Heart at LIU Brooklyn ?
7:00 PM St. Francis (NY) at Quinnipiac ?
7:00 PM Bryant at Robert Morris ?
7:00 PM Central Connecticut State at Saint Francis (PA)
?7:00 PM Monmouth at Wagner
?7:00 PM Citadel at Western Carolina
?8:00 PM Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky (FCS)?
8:00 PM Iowa at Penn State (ESPNU) ?
8:00 PM Louisiana-Monroe at North Texas ?
8:00 PM NJIT at Texas-Pan American ?
8:05 PM Troy at Arkansas State
?8:05 PM Chicago State at Houston Baptist ?
8:30 PM Portland at San Diego ?
9:00 PM Boston College at Maryland (ESPN3)
?9:00 PM Vanderbilt at Ole Miss (ESPN2) ?
9:00 PM West Virginia at Pittsburgh (ESPN) ?
9:00 PM Arizona at Washington State (FSN AZ) ?
9:00 PM North Dakota at Louisiana Tech ?
10:00 PM Oregon State at Stanford ?
10:00 PM BYU at San Francisco (ESPNU) ?
10:10 PM Pepperdine at Seattle ?
10:30 PM Oregon at California ?
11:00 PM Arizona State at Washington (FSN)