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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wisconsin's Basketball Rivals

It's "Rivalry Week" according to ESPN. All that really means is that Duke is playing North Carolina this week. Wisconsin happens to be hosting Iowa, a border rival, on Wednesday night.

While I don't put much stock in the Worldwide Leader's labels, I would consider the Hawkeyes decent rivals. Iowa has been within two spots of Wisconsin in the final Big Ten standings six of the last 10 seasons. Though it has not won the regular season Big Ten title in that span, Iowa's program has some history. These two teams have also shared some memorable Big Ten Tournament matches. Yet, despite upsetting Wisconsin earlier this year, Iowa has not been keeping up its end of the deal lately in this rivalry.

Only four teams have accounted for 13 of the 14 Big Ten champions in the last decade -- Illinois (4), Michigan State (3), Ohio State (3) and Wisconsin (3). Indiana was a part of the four-way tie in 2001-02. Because the Badgers have been so successful under Bo Ryan, it has been natural for Wisconsin's games with conference heavyweights like Michigan State and Illinois to take on more meaning to fans and players ... and certain coaches too.

The two biggest ingredients in a rivalry are that the games always matter and the teams are close in proximity. When it comes to conference rivals, I automatically discard five teams (Penn State, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan) which have not sustained the same level of success as UW. These contests simply have not been meaningful as often when you are talking about title chases. Some of these teams also have more natural rivalries of their own due to location.

Even though Wisconsin and Ohio State are two of the stronger programs in the league, Ohio State is just far enough away that any bad blood that develops simmers down in between games. The recruiting turf rarely overlaps and the fan bases do not deal with each other on a day-to-day basis. Conversely, Wisconsin shares its longest border with Minnesota and the Gophers will always be a big rival in most sports, so you have to throw them into the mix for "top rivalry." With the resurgence under Tubby Smith, Minnesota gets the nod over both Iowa and Ohio State. For the foreseeable, this will be a "homecoming" game for the handful of Badgers plucked from Minnesota.

That leaves Illinois and Michigan State. I have said many times that I look forward to the games with Michigan State the most. Since rivalries are based on a lot of emotion anyway, I am sticking with mine. Depending on what course the programs take over the next 10 years, though, I think the Illini are a better bet to remain a long-term rival. Thus, I consider Illinois to be Wisconsin's "Rival 1B". It is interesting to look back on the ebb and flow in the intensity of the competition between the Badgers and some of their Big Ten neighbors.

With that in mind, Marquette has to be considered Wisconsin's number one basketball rival. The public vs. private institution juxtaposition fuels spirited debates that boil over into hatred. Both schools are drawing form the same recruiting base and even have maintained contrasting playing styles lately, which only drives the intense "my dad can beat up your dad" pride on both sides even further. Whether the teams are both nationally ranked or not, this game always matters, at least to people in the state. And it will always be that way. Plus, without a football team, the Marquette community has to hold the annual clash in high regard.

Ranking UW's conference rivalries:
1. Michigan State
2. Illinois
3. Minnesota
4. Iowa
5. Ohio State
6. Purdue
7. Northwestern
8. Michigan
9. Indiana
10. Penn State


  1. We are waiting to give Badgers a shellacking this month to East Lansing.
    I guess there will no refs from the refs this time and no shooting 50 free throws.

  2. I'm not sure how Illini fans feel about you but we Spartans think of you as our number one hoops rivalry, so the feeling is mutual. The games are almost always competitive, which helps build the passions on both sides. Unfortunately (for us) you seem to edge us out at the end more often than not.

    I thought we might be developing a rivalry with Illinois there in the mid 00's but it seems to have faded - there's just not enough bad blood.

    Michigan will always be 1B for us - no matter how bad they are it still always feels good to beat them.

  3. I would raise Northwestern up to 5 on your list and drop everyone else down one. It seems like we've had some good games with them over the last half dozen years or so. That, combined with the proximity factor, make it more intense for me.

  4. Good to hear from some Spartans. I am hoping that UW is hitting its stride in the next 10 days so we have another memorable clash with MSU.

    The Northwestern point is duly noted, but I don't know any Northwestern fans and what's more, I don't know anyone that does. It will take a few more years of tight games I think for that matchup to register on the "does this game matter" meter.

    But now that I re-evaluate my list, it's hard to believe Purdue was only 6th ... the Badgerland is eagerly awaiting the next shot at the Boilers after the broom job they've applied the past two seasons.

  5. We're going to kick UW's arse in EL!!!!

    GO State!


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