In honor of Valentine’s Day, great rivalries always bring out the love – the love to hate – on Cupid’s Day.
There’s Duke-North Carolina. There’s Kentucky-Louisville. There's even Kansas-Missouri.
There’s also Michigan State-Wisconsin. Don’t sleep on the Spartans and Badgers as a take-notice college basketball hoops rivalry, especially as “The Mitten State Battle” continues.
On the heels of January’s classic in Madison – where Michigan State withstood a furious rally and needed a banked-in-but-ruled-to-be-released-too-late 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer to escape with a 63-60 win – and before the teams take the floor this Thursday, now seems like a time to put the Michigan State-Wisconsin matchup on a pedestal in hopes of comparing it to college basketball’s other great rivalries.
Obviously, one game doesn’t make a rivalry. You need the following: Buzzer-beaters, crazy comebacks, superstars who take over games and will their teams to victory, two programs that are pretty solid year in and year out, and finally, at least a little animosity between coaches.
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
THE EARLY FLAME
The rivalry blossomed when Bo Ryan took over at the start of the 2001-02 season, though some could argue the sparks began flickering during Michigan State’s 2000 NCAA National Championship season. The old adage is, “It’s nearly impossible to beat an opponent three times in one season.” Oh yeah? Try four.
Not only did the Spartans sweep both meetings during the regular season but the Spartans rolled the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament as well. Meeting No. 4 took place in the Final Four in Indianapolis. There, the Spartans beat Wisconsin 53-41 in what many called the ugliest Final Four game in history (that is, until Uconn beat Butler by the same score in last season’s national title game). The win propelled Michigan State to its second national championship and first under Tom Izzo.
When Dick Bennett resigned three games into the following season citing “burnout,” Wisconsin started what many thought would be a fall off the college basketball map.
Then it hired Bo Ryan.
Wisconsin became a really, really good basketball program and became Michigan State’s nemesis almost immediately.
THE TIP-IN GAME
On January 12, 2002, when the Badgers visited the Breslin Center, the Spartans were riding the nation’s longest home-court winning streak at 53 games. In a back-and-forth game, which I witnessed from the upper deck, Wisconsin had a two-point lead when then-freshman Alan Anderson was fouled with 10 seconds to play. Despite splitting the free throws, Aloysius Anagonye’s rebound gave the Spartans a chance for a last-second win. Sophomore Marcus Taylor missed a driving layup but the ball went out of bounds off Wisconsin with 0.2 seconds on the clock.
This is where Tom Izzo began exerting his muscle as a master of both under-the-basket inbounds plays as well as plays following a timeout.
With Anderson inbounding the ball, fellow freshman Kelvin Torbert, after some cuts and screens, darted to the middle of the lane, quickly caught Anderson’s pass and banked in a floater for the win.
Fans stormed the court – I wasn’t one of them for two reasons: First, jumping from the upper deck wouldn’t have been very smart; Second, I knew the basket, which was being reviewed, would be overturned. With 0.3 or less on the clock, the ball can only be tipped. It was clear that Torbert, albeit for a split second, possessed the ball before releasing the floater, meaning the time had to run out. Wisconsin won, 64-63.
Had 0.5 been on the clock the Spartans win. However, then we might never have had this budding rivalry.
THE ‘I’LL REMEMBER THAT’ GAME
The next season, with Michigan State’s most disappointing season in recent memory undoubtedly still on Tom Izzo’s mind (after three straight Final Fours and a national championship, an 18-win season and first round NCAA Tournament loss looks pretty bad), the Badgers and Spartans were at it again.
The teams’ only meeting that season took place at the Kohl Center and boy was it another classic. With the game tied at 48-48 with 5:25 to go, Wisconsin used a clutch 3-pointer by Alando Tucker to ignite a 16-5 Wisconsin run to close the game. It was the final two points – a Tucker alley-oop dunk on a pass by Devin Harris at the buzzer – that infuriated Izzo.
“I’ll remember that,” Izzo yelled at Ryan, with a handshake that made a Bill Belichick-Eric Mangini exchange seem cordial.
“I would never allow my team to do that and I’m not going to talk about it,” a crimson-faced Izzo said after the game.
Some reports say Ryan understood Izzo’s anger but, being a reporter in the press room, that was not the case at all. Ryan defended the play as well as his players, saying, “That’s a 19-year old throwing to an 18-year old in a situation where Michigan State is the marked team… It’s two young men that finished with an exclamation point.”
THE SEASON THAT PUT GASOLINE ON THE FIRE
The 2003-04 season might have been Wisconsin’s payback for the quartet of losses in 2000. The trifecta of losses, each one stinging in a different way, really brought out Izzo’s venom when discussing Wisconsin.
This, if you remember, was the year Izzo went psychotic in his nonconference schedule, playing games against five ranked opponents and UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Those games were: At No. 14 Kansas; Vs. No. 6 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge; vs. No. 14 Oklahoma at the Palace of Auburn Hills; vs. No. 4 Kentucky in the “BasketBowl” at Detroit’s Ford Field; and, finally, at No. 24 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
The Spartans lost every game.
Naturally, the first Big Ten game that season was against the Badgers at the Kohl Center.
In Izzo’s mind, Wisconsin benefitted from the game being officiated differently on each end of the floor. Thanks to a 27-13 foul disparity, Wisconsin shot 35 free throws to Michigan State’s 13. (Note: MSU was 13-for-13 from the line).
“I felt like there was a lot of physical play inside,” Izzo said. “I thought it was knick-knack on one end and not the other.”
It’s a rare time that Izzo went out of his way to blast officials after a game. Nevertheless, Wisconsin’s 77-64 victory dropped MSU to 5-7 overall on a season it started the year as high as No. 2 in many preseason publications.
THE “BANNER IN THE RAFTERS” GAME
Despite all its early-season struggles, Michigan State won 12 of its next 14 games and would clinch a Big Ten Championship by winning its regular season finale. It was a home against, you guessed it, Wisconsin.
Unbeknownst to Ryan and his players – if you believe the coach – was the fact a “2003-04 Big Ten Championship” banner was hanging right above Wisconsin’s bench. The Spartans win and Izzo’s team would claim its’ fifth Big Ten crown in seven seasons.
The game was a back-and-forth contest that came down to free throw shooting, cramps and a “what will happen to the banner” question.
Paul Davis had been an absolute monster for the Spartans that night. Davis recorded a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds before leaving the game on a stretcher with two minutes left in regulation due to severe leg cramps.
Down three with 45 seconds to play and with a hand in his face, Harris hit a 27-foot triple - to knot the score at 52.
Then-junior Chris Hill was fouled with 22 seconds to play with a chance to retake the lead for MSU. Despite being an 80-percent free-throw shooter, Hill missed both shots and the game went to overtime.
Without Davis being a monster inside, Wisconsin controlled the extra session and reserve player Clayton Hanson hit a big triple giving Wisconsin a 68-64 win.
THE DEVIN HARRIS PLAYS HERO, AGAIN GAME
The Spartans had one more chance for revenge that season in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
Michigan State controlled the first 20 minutes and half of the second half. That’s when Wisconsin used a 10-0 run to take the lead. The game was nip and tuck but Harris hit a pair of back-breaking 3-pointers down the stretch that proved to be crucial. Maurice Ager missed an in-close runner off the front of the rim as time expired to give Wisconsin a 68-66 victory.
When the final buzzer sounded, Harris dove on the floor in front of his bench and was mobbed by his teammates.
It is likely Harris wasn’t only celebrating this victory but the fact he had, some would argue, helped Wisconsin extend is winning streak against Michigan State to five games.
After the game, a frustrated Izzo said, “It was another tough loss. But if failure builds character, I’m going to have some character before the seasons over.”
THE 11-0 FINISH GAME
When it finally appeared Michigan State would not only snap its losing streak to Wisconsin but also conquer the Kohl Center, everything collapsed for the Spartans.
Despite Wisconsin having the nation’s longest home-court winning streak at the time (37 games) and being a perfect 25-0 in Big Ten home games under Bo Ryan, the Spartans held a 59-51 lead with 2 minutes to play.
For the Spartans, that’s when the rim closed. Wisconsin’s Sharif Chambliss hit a triple and Mike Wilkinson went 4-for-4 from the foul line to pull Wisconsin within one.
Kammron Taylor’s basket in the lane with 37.3 to play gave Wisconsin a 60-59 lead and a pair of Zach Morley free throws with 9.3 to go tallied the winning score. MSU’s Shannon Brown missed a 3-pointer – with the ball literally circling the rim – as the buzzer sounded to give Wisconsin the 62-59 win and seal the shocking Badgers comeback.
THE STREAK-SNAPPER GAME
Then-junior Paul Davis heaved the ball skyward when the final buzzer sounded. For Michigan State to do that in a regular-season game says a lot.
Senior Alan Anderson scored a career-high 28 points in a perfect game (he was 10-of-10 from the field and 7-for-7 from the line) as Michigan State not only snapped a six-game losing streak to Wisconsin but a 12-game losing streak to ranked opponents.
Izzo’s postgame comments illustrated just how big the 77-64 victory was: “It’s not secret; we needed to get over one hurdle. There’s a bunch more hurdles to go, but you have to get over the first. We had to get over this one to give this team a chance to get the weight of the world off their shoulders and to move on.”
Who would have ever thought Wisconsin would become the “weight of the world” for Michigan State?
After the 2005-06 season seemed to be fairly tame – the home team won each game pretty easily – the zesty 2006-07 season began.
THE “DOWN GOES #1” GAME
It was the type of game Wisconsin would always win, especially against Michigan State. Ryan’s Badgers were 26-2 and had ascended to the nation’s No. 1 ranking the previous day. Michigan State, at the time, was 19-8 and .500 in the Big Ten.
The game started with a bang: MSU took a 7-0 lead, thanks in part to Ryan picking up a technical foul due to the lack of a foul call on a MSU offensive rebound. Naturally, Wisconsin responded by scoring 16 of the game’s next 19 points.
Point guard Drew Neitzel took over late in the game, hitting a pair of clutch 3-pointers and giving MSU the lead for good and the first MSU win against the No. 1 ranked team since Magic Johnson led the Spartans to the 1979 championship against Larry Bird’s top-ranked Indiana State Sycamores.
It was a win that, as Izzo had preached throughout the tumultuous season, could leave a forever cemented footprint in the Spartan history books.
“It is a chance for us to leave our legacy and our footprints on the program,” Neitzel said after the game.
THE FORCING MICHIGAN STATE TO PLAY ZONE GAME
Wisconsin’s aggressiveness in the team’s meeting a few weeks later was crippling MSU’s ability to play man-to-man defense. So, for one of the rare times in Izzo’s tenure, the Spartans resorted to a zone defense.
“I thought we were going to have to forfeit the game there for a while,” Izzo joked after the game, no doubt referencing the fact five players had three fouls with 10 minutes left in the game.
Still, the Spartans looked like they would leave the Kohl Center with a rare victory. That is, until Kammron Taylor had a Hollywood Senior Day sendoff.
Trailing 50-49, Taylor hit a triple with four seconds remaining to give Wisconsin the 52-50 victory.
“If it’s an omen, we’ll find out,” Ryan said. “But what a great way to walk off the court here for the last time.”
THE 30 FOULS & 12-POINT WISCONSIN COMEBACK GAME
After some rather typical games, the teams met in the 2007-08 Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Looking to reach the tournament finals for the first time since 2000, Michigan State held a 12-point lead with about seven minutes to play. The finish was a typical slug-it-out Wisconsin-MSU battle.
Shortly after building the lead, three Spartan bigs – Idong Ibok, Drew Naymick and Goran Suton – fouled out in the span of 56 seconds. The depleted bench forced Izzo to play lineups that rarely played together and the Spartans couldn’t hang on.
Wisconsin guard Michael Flowers stole a critical inbound pass and took it in for an easy, uncontested lay-up that proved to be the game winner for the Badgers.
“I don’t plan on getting over this today; I don’t play on getting over this tomorrow,” Izzo said about the 65-53 loss.
THE 12-POINT MICHIGAN STATE COMEBACK GAME
The teams didn’t meet again until the following February in East Lansing. This time, Wisconsin was trying to play spoiler.
The Spartans held a narrow lead in the Big Ten while Wisconsin, in a rebuilding year and having lost six-straight games at one point in the season, was playing slightly above .500 ball in the conference.
Nevertheless, with 12:30 to play in the game, the Spartans had just 29 points and were trailing by a dozen.
“We had some interesting huddles,” Izzo said. “We got to brass tacks and that changed a lot of things.”
Relying on its defense, the Spartans close the game on a 32-9 run to cement a 61-50 victory.
“Life is about tempo and pace in a lot of things that we do,” Ryan said. “When they were making their run, which you know teams are going to do, especially at home, you need to get a bucket to squeeze between. We missed some shots around the basket.”
THE KALIN LUCAS TAKES OVER GAME
The teams traded victories in 2009-10 with each team, not surprisingly, winning at home. But when the teams met in early January of 2011, it was as if the previous season’s games weren’t suspenseful enough for diehard Michigan State and Wisconsin fans.
Michigan State, trailing 53-44, scored the final nine points in regulation and won the game in overtime, 64-61. Kalin Lucas led the charge in regulation and scored 17 points in the game. Draymond Green took over in the extra session en route to a career-high 26 points.
“We fell apart,” said then-junior Jordan Taylor. “They turned us over and did a good job of pressuring.”
It was a win that many thought would save Michigan State’s season. The Spartans, ranked as high as No. 2 in many preseason polls, had just fallen out of the rankings.
“I’ve never seen a bunch of guys get knocked down more times than we got knocked down, and in every huddle, they still thought they could win,” Izzo said.
In hindsight, the win didn’t save MSU’s season; what the win probably did was give MSU one victory it desperately needed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 14th-straight season.
Izzo’s team lacked chemistry all season – a fact that became increasingly clear as the season wore on. The team’s issues were never more prevalent than in an 82-56 loss to Wisconsin later that season.
THE "WHICH CLOCK IS IT?" GAME
All MSU’s frustrations were bottled for a streak-snapper game this season. Both teams struggled to score and Wisconsin held a 22-21 lead at halftime which, in a hilarious comparison, was dwarfed by the conference’s first ever football championship game halftime score (MSU led Wisconsin, 29-21 on the gridiron).
But the Spartans seemed to be playing like Wisconsin typically did against MSU at home: Methodical and mistake free. Still, that didn’t stop Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor from hitting a game-tying free throw late in regulation to send the game into overtime.
There, the Spartans seemed to take control. MSU led by seven with 30 seconds to play. Of course, that’s when gamers become heroes. Taylor hit a deep, hand-in-his-face triple to pull Wisconsin to within four at 61-57. After MSU sunk a pair of free throws, it was déjà vu for Taylor. Another deep three make it 63-60.
Despite being Mr. Clutch for the Spartans, Draymond Green missed both free throws with 7.1 seconds to play that would have iced the game. After Taylor missed a desperation shot, Ryan Evans grabbed the offensive rebound, sprinted to the 3-point line, jumped, spun around and banked in a triple as the buzzer sounded to knot the score.
Officials spent more than two minutes at the monitors to see if the shot would count. The situation became crazier when replays showed the game clock on the shot clock and another game clock in the replay were not synced. However, NCAA rules are the shot clock’s numbers are correct. Replays clearly show the ball in Evans’ hands with 0.0 on the clock.
Much to Ryan’s disgust – a lip reader would almost certainly confirm him dropping a few F-bombs directed squarely at an official – the shot didn’t count and Michigan State slayed it’s Kohl Center losing streak, 63-60.
With two future Hall of Fame coaches and two programs that have formulas for winning, expecting either team to disappear into some type of abyss or the rivalry to lose any luster is lunacy.
Thursday’s game comes with both teams within reach of a Big Ten Championship. Welcome to the next chapter of one of the decade’s greatest rivalries.