Spartans shining as Big 10 schedule set to resume

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, talks with Cassius Winston, from left, Joshua Langford, Nick Ward and Miles Bridges, right, on the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Long Beach State, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 102-60. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)


AP Sports Writer

MADISON, Wis. — The last two Big Ten teams to make the Final Four are off to wildly different starts this year.

Stacked Michigan State looks like a favorite to return to the national semifinals for the first time since 2015, when Wisconsin gave the Big Ten a Final Four twosome.

Just getting above .500 before league play picks up again would be an achievement for the young Badgers after an injury-plagued start to this season.

“We haven’t become complete yet in terms of putting 40 solid minutes together,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said after a closer-than-expected 82-70 win over Chicago State.

The Cougars have just two wins this season. But considering that the Badgers (7-7, 1-1) returned to .500 with a third straight victory, it was an important night for a program that isn’t used to struggling so early in the year.

Junior Ethan Happ (16.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists) remains one of the best all-around post players in the country. The rest of the team has had growing pains with four new starters. Freshmen and other less inexperienced players have been thrust into key rotation roles.

Happ spent the 2014-15 season as a redshirt, watching from the bench as the Frank Kaminsky-led team advanced all the way to the national title game in 2015 before losing to Duke. The Blue Devils beat Michigan State in the semifinals, a team that included current Spartans Tum Tum Nairn and Gavin Schilling.

They’re seniors now providing experience off the bench on a team led by a talented sophomore class including Miles Bridges.

The NBA talent turned down a chance to go one-and-done in the offseason. His return made the second-ranked Spartans (12-1, 2-0) a favorite to make a run deep into March.

But first and foremost, Michigan State is focused on winning the Big Ten.

“We have to remember our ultimate goal and that is to win a Big Ten championship,” Bridges said.

Besides Michigan State, No. 14 Purdue (12-2) is the only other team ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 poll.

There’s a drop-off to the next tier of contenders, though teams like Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan are capable of beating any team.