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Nate Reuvers - UW vs. Michigan State

Michigan State's Kenny Goins blocks a shot by Wisconsin's Nate Reuvers during the second half of the Spartans victory over the Badgers in the semifinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament Saturday at the United Center in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Somewhere amid the missed shots in the paint, the wayward 3-point bombs and Michigan State's blazing shooting at the start of the game, there was a lesson to be learned for the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team Saturday.

When you're playing a really good team, the kind of team you're likely to see throughout the NCAA tournament that starts later this week, you can't afford to relax or lose your focus at any time. One lapse on offense or defense that lasts more than a few possessions and that's it, your season is finished.

If the 19th-ranked Badgers hadn't already learned that lesson, they did for certain in their 67-55 loss to sixth-ranked Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament at the United Center. They played the Spartans on even terms for long stretches of the game, but a defensive lapse early and an offensive lapse late sent them directly to NCAA Selection Sunday with a 23-10 record and a likely No. 4 seed in the only tournament that counts.

A fourth-seed seems about right for UW, but putting yourself in good position to make a long tournament run and then actually going out and doing it are two entirely different things. Saturday's game against Big Ten co-champion Michigan State showed UW why.

"If you have mental lapses or mental blips, they send you home, so you've got to be locked in right from the start," guard Brad Davison said. "I think we were locked in today, they just hit some tough shots and some open 3s. We let their confidence get going. When you give a great team and great players like that confidence, it's tough to battle back from."

The Spartans made seven of their first nine shots, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range to take an 18-4 lead. Their hot shooting continued until the score was 27-10, which forced UW to play catch-up the rest of the way. And playing catch-up from the start against a team the caliber of Michigan State is simply not advisable for a team seeking to make noise in the tournament, especially a team that can be offensively challenged at times.

The second half proved how tough that was as UW inched its way back into the game and twice cut Michigan State's lead to six points, only to suffer through a 7-minute, 14-second scoreless streak that took away any chance the Badgers had of completing the comeback. After forward Khalil Iverson hit a fall-away jumper to cut the lead to 49-43, UW missed its next nine shots — some 3s, some at the rim — and lost touch with the Spartans for good.

"They honestly came out and they were knocking down pretty much every shot," guard D'Mitrik Trice said. "They were hitting every 3, getting to the rim. I think we've just got to start faster with a different mindset, especially on the defensive end."

The Badgers also need to smooth out an offense that has played fitfully all season. Michigan State's quick, long, physical defenders give everyone trouble, but UW actually attacked the Spartans defense reasonably well and found itself with some decent looks. Problem was, the shots just wouldn't fall with any regularity.

The Badgers shot 35.3 percent from the field and 10.5 percent — 2-for-19 — from 3-point range. Pretty hard to mount a comeback with that kind of marksmanship.

"We can't have those big gaps, especially when other teams are filling it up," guard Brevin Pritzl said. "It's easy to sweep it under the rug if they're missing shots, but they weren't. So that magnifies it when we're going on those scoring droughts."

Unfortunately, this has become a pattern for UW this season. Saturday's early no-show notwithstanding, the defense ranks among the best in the country and has generally kept the Badgers in games. But the offense oscillates between highly efficient and non-existent, a level of inconsistency that cost UW Saturday and could do the same in the NCAA tournament.

"It was just missing shots," Trice said. "I think we got a lot of wide-open shots. We ran plays perfectly. We just didn't knock down the open shots. Against a team like that, that's tough to do and stay in the game."

Don't the Badgers know that. Though Saturday's game was more closely contested than the final score indicates during much of the second half, it was their first loss by more than nine points all season.

Still, UW's players expressed confidence that they have what it takes to put it all together in the next few weeks after battling their way through a difficult non-conference schedule and 22 games against Big Ten opponents. Indeed, getting far away from Big Ten defenses that have memorized the Badgers' tendencies might be just the break their sometimes-ailing offense needs.

"Michigan State's a really, really good team and they always are," Trice said. "They're well-coached and very disciplined. It's always hard when you go down that much to come back. Props to our team that we did come back and we did fight to the very end. There's a bright side to everything."

That's only true if you apply the lessons you've learned. The Badgers will have at least one more chance to show they can eliminate their lapses on both ends of the floor, play consistently enough to beat really good teams and make a memorable tournament run.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.