Michigan State and Wisconsin can still claim shares of the Big Ten title, but they've made it much harder on themselves after recent disappointments.
The No. 10 Spartans, losers of three straight, and the 22nd-ranked Badgers, who are coming off an upset defeat, will square off Thursday night in East Lansing with the winner still alive for part of the conference crown.
Michigan State has won seven straight at home over Wisconsin and four in a row overall in the series, including a 49-47 victory in Madison on Jan. 22. Each team needs to win its final two games and also hope for No. 7 Michigan to beat second-ranked Indiana on Sunday in Ann Arbor to claim a piece of the conference championship. The Spartans (22-7, 11-5) conclude the season Sunday at home against Northwestern, while the Badgers (20-9, 11-5) visit last-place Penn State.
The Spartans were tied for the Big Ten lead before suffering three consecutive defeats to ranked opponents by a combined 13 points. The slide has coincided with a personal slump for leading scorer Keith Appling, who was averaging 14.1 points prior to the losing streak.
Appling has scored in single digits in each of the last three games while going 5 of 23 from the field (21.7 percent).
His lowest point came Sunday in a 58-57 loss at Michigan when Trey Burke stole the ball from him and went the other way for the game-winning basket with 22 seconds left.
"Things just haven't been going my way lately, but I'm a mentally tough person," said Appling, who had a game-high 19 points against Wisconsin earlier this season. "So, I don't let it bother me too much. I just watch the film and try to grow from it."
Michigan State's 3-point shooting, which is at 25.0 percent over the last three games, could particularly use a spark from Appling, who is 0 for 9 during the same stretch.
While the Spartans have been dropping close games, Wisconsin had won three straight by a total of 81 points and seemed to be cruising to a fourth on Sunday with a 13-point first-half lead at home over Purdue.
But the Badgers went cold from 3-point range, missing their last 18 attempts, and wound up giving away a 39-27 rebounding edge in what finished as a 69-56 loss. They will be tested on the boards again by the Spartans, who rank 12th in the nation in rebounding differential at plus-7.2. Wisconsin is at plus-4.8, but battled Michigan State to a 35-all rebounding tie in the first meeting.
"I think the numbers show that they (Purdue) did a better job of some of those hustle plays," said Jared Berggren, who averages a team-high 11.6 points along with 7.0 rebounds. "That's something we normally take pride in controlling and getting more than our fair share of rebounds, loose balls, things like that. We didn't do a good job coming away with those and that cost us."
Both teams have seen key freshmen step up their play even more in recent weeks. Gary Harris is averaging 16.0 points on 50.9 percent shooting over Michigan State's last five games, while the Badgers' Sam Dekker is scoring 13.0 points per game over the last six while shooting 59.1 percent.
Wisconsin hit only 29.6 percent of its shots in the first meeting - its lowest mark in almost two years - while sophomore Branden Dawson had 18 points and a career high-tying 13 rebounds for Michigan State.
The Badgers haven't won in East Lansing since a 68-64 overtime victory on March 2, 2004.
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