INDIANAPOLIS – At one point Friday, a Minnesota band member called out to Wisconsin guard Ben Brust, who was standing alone on the floor as free throws were shot at the other end. The band member announced that his roommate was someone, presumably, that Brust knew. Brust turned, smiled, and nodded his head.
This was the extent of Brust's positive interactions with anyone representing the Gophers' interests.
Otherwise, he and his Badgers teammates spent a couple hours decimating Minnesota and its fledgling NCAA tournament hopes. In a game the Gophers had to win in order to get on the preferred side of the bubble, Wisconsin dominated thoroughly en route to an 83-57 win. Brust led the way with 29 points as the Badgers shot 54.5 percent overall, including 64 percent after halftime, while holding Minnesota to 32.8 percent efficiency. It was Wisconsin at its clinical best, winning for the ninth time in 10 games and maintaining its momentum in the battle for the final No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday.
“I never answer anything about seeds,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “Sunflower seeds, when I used to play baseball, I chewed them. That's the only seeds I know anything about. Really, I've never answered any of those questions because I really wouldn't know what to say.”
The Gophers, meanwhile, may or may not have done enough. They bring a 20-12 record into Selection Sunday, with an 8-10 conference mark during the season and a split of two games during the conference tournament. “Listen, I hope we get into the NCAA Tournament,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I feel that we played one of the best schedules in the country, and that's normally what they want you to do. But with that being said, whatever tournament we are in -- we're disappointed tonight, but I'm proud of how hard these guys have played this whole year.”
Wisconsin made its statement at the start, opening a 21-9 lead on a Sam Dekker dunk. Minnesota rallied, but was down 12 at halftime and never made it truly interesting after. About the only drama involved Pitino evidently getting a bit salty about Badgers benchwarmers hoisting bombs as time wound down, having an extended conversation with Ryan during handshakes and leaving none too pleased.
“They made hard cuts, they played the game and respected the game,” Ryan said.
It was a temporary frustration for Pitino. The enduring one may arrive Sunday night.
Michigan State 67, Northwestern 51. The context must be considered for the Spartans. Because the Wildcats poured what little they had left this season into an upset of Iowa on Thursday night, a very thin rotation and roster bearing a heavy workload just to survive. But Michigan State did look good in a Friday night quarterfinal beatdown of Northwestern, certainly betraying no hint of ill health or lingering injury. So it might be that the Spartans are becoming the Spartans everyone figured could win a national title. Or it could be that they just played Northwestern. It was difficult to tell, but the litmus test awaits in a semifinal matchup with Wisconsin on Saturday.
“It's definitely important for us to get this win, just to see us happy again as a team, playing good as a team,” Spartans forward Branden Dawson said. “We got Keith (Appling) coming back and other guys rotating in. This win was definitely well-needed.”
Said guard Gary Harris: “We were just playing how we were playing early in the season, which was good for us.”
The Wildcats hung in there for approximately 10 or 12 minutes. But by the time Denzel Valentine was feeding Matt Costello with a behind-the-back pass for a bucket as well as an intentional foul call late in the first half, it was effectively over. That made it an 18-point game, where it stood at the break. The Spartans pushed the lead to 24 eventually, not that there was much doubt ever.
And not that the night was a pointless exercise: Getting a spry, juiced-up effort from Dawson was an auspicious sign. In his fourth game game back from a broken hand, Dawson posted 16 points and nine rebounds. If that production can be replicated against higher-level teams – or at least something near it – then Michigan State might perform like the Michigan State everyone expected to see. “Because of his activeness,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said, “I'd say the best he's played in a long, long time.”