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.
Injuries to starting point guard D’Mitrik Trice (foot) and important freshman reserve Kobe King (knee) also forced the Badgers to scramble in a backcourt already short on experience. The early-season schedule included games against four ranked teams, all losses.
Wisconsin will have had about a month to adjust to playing without Trice and King by the time its Big Ten schedule opens on Jan. 2 against Indiana.
“We’ve kind of thrown them into the fire,” Happ said recently about the Badgers’ freshmen. “It’s an adjustment period just like it was for me my freshman year … We’re just going to have to learn and get better every day.”
Happ spent the 2014-15 season as a redshirt, watching and learning 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 national 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 after a 102-60 win over Long Beach State last week. “We’re going to continue to win as many games as we can, we can’t go home and not stay focused.”
Some other notes and things to watch as Big Ten play picks up again next week:
EARLY START: Schools are actually returning to league play after a two-game window of conference games interrupted nonconference play in early December. The scheduling quirk allows for an end to Big Ten regular-season play in late February to allow for the conference tournament to be played in New York from Feb. 28-March 4, which is about a week ahead of when it’s usually held.
THE CONTENDERS: Besides Michigan State, No. 14 Purdue (12-2) is the only other team ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 poll. Winners of eight straight, the confident Boilermakers head into conference play with confidence-boosting nonconference wins over Arizona, Louisville and Butler on its resume.
THE NEXT TIER: There seems to be a little drop-off to the next tier of Big Ten contenders, though teams like Minnesota, Maryland and Michigan — each 11-3 overall and 1-1 in the league) are capable of beating any team. Northwestern (9-5, 1-1) has played a tough early-season schedule, including a 104-78 loss at No. 12 Oklahoma last week. The Wildcats trailed by 30 at the half in that game.
“I knew at least that we weren’t going to win the game. It was more about trying to build our habits going forward as we head into conference,” coach Chris Collins said.
THE OTHERS: Three schools perennially in the lower half of the standings are off to solid starts in Nebraska (9-5, 1-1), along with two 10-4 teams in Penn State (1-1 Big Ten) and Rutgers (0-2). The Scarlet Knights upset then-No. 15 Seton Hall. The Cornhuskers have an upset over then-No. 14 Minnesota and lost just 73-72 to Kansas in mid-December.
GAMES TO WATCH: Purdue at Michigan State, Feb. 10. The only game between the top two teams in the league could help determine seeding the conference tournament and a boost to the winner’s NCAA Tournament resume … Michigan State at Northwestern, Feb. 17 and Minnesota at Purdue, Feb. 25. Chances for two other potential upper-division teams to claim late-season resume-building wins.