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February 26, 2008

Wisconsin: MSU's ingrown toenail

    Or are the Badgers more like an incurable hemorrhoid? Since 2001-02, when Bo Ryan arrived and MSU began its post-glory era, no one has delivered more gnawing pain to the Spartans.

    Let's review:
    2002: In the first meeting between Ryan and Izzo, MSU has a 10-point lead in the second half, lets it slip away, thinks it wins on a tip-in from Kelvin Torbert at the buzzer (followed by an Izzone floor rushing), then finds out the tip came late. The loss ends MSU's 53-game Breslin winning streak. And as it turns out, the Spartans end up one game out in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin gets a share of the title.
    2003: For the second straight season, the teams meet once, this time in Madison. MSU needs it to stay in the Big Ten race. It's a competitive contest but Wisconsin pulls away late. With seconds remaining, sophomore Devin Harris gets a loose ball, pushes it and throws a lob to freshman Alando Tucker, who dunks right before the buzzer. Izzo is incensed as he approaches Ryan for the handshake. I can still see it clearly.
    Izzo: "I'll ****ing remember that!"
    Ryan (almost shrugging): "OK."
    Wisconsin wins its second straight Big Ten championship. Preseason favorite MSU finishes third.
    2004: This is where it really gets nasty, and painful for MSU. The Badgers rout the Spartans in Madison in the Big Ten opener, despite a 17-5 start for MSU. That drops the Spartans to 5-7 on the season. But MSU recovers from that low point, going on a tear and setting itself up to win the Big Ten. All it needs to do is beat Wisconsin at home in the regular-season finale. The famed "banner game" (because MSU had its Big Ten title banner rolled up in the rafters, and Wisconsin's coaches spotted it and used it to motivate their team) is also the best game I've ever seen Paul Davis play. He has 26 but sits the final seven minutes with painful cramps. Wisconsin comes back to tie it on a Harris 3-pointer. Chris Hill misses two free throws in the waning seconds. Wisconsin wins in overtime. No championship.
    Everyone remembers that game. But don't forget what happened just a few days later in Indianapolis. MSU plays perhaps its best game of the year in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, leading Wisconsin for most of the game. But a late Harris 3-pointer is the dagger again. He actually blows a one-and-one in the waning seconds, but Mo Ager's shot at the buzzer to tie is off. Those consecutive losses, I believe, did damage to the Spartans' collective psyche that wasn't repaired until the next year's Final Four run.
    2005: So now the "0-for-Bo" shirts are selling well in Madison. MSU is there again for the Big Ten opener, and the Spartans play a terrific game. They're the better team and they're in control. And they somehow blow an eight-point lead with less than two minutes left. You could actually see MSU's players wilting under the pressure. Ugly. Scoreboard: Bo 6, Izzo 0, with five straight icy handshakes.
    Finally, later that season, MSU beats the Badgers, 77-64 at home. Alan Anderson has a career game. The "0-for-Bo" is over. And Izzo and Ryan swear their feud is over and was overblown in the first place. MSU ends up 13-3 in the league, ahead of Wisconsin but behind 15-1 Illinois. The Spartans reach the Final Four. The Badgers have their best tourney showing under Ryan, reaching the Elite Eight and nearly beating North Carolina to join MSU in the national semis.
    2006: MSU is the preseason Big Ten favorite. Wisconsin blows out the Spartans in Madison in January, with Mo Ager and Paul Davis struggling. The Spartans pay Wisconsin back in March at home. Ryan and Izzo seem cordial. Both teams watch as Ohio State becomes surprise champ.
    2007: Finally, the Spartans deliver their own dagger, knocking off the Badgers just after they assumed the No. 1 spot in the polls for the first time in school history. That loss is a big one for Wisconsin, which is edged out by Ohio State for the championship. An incredible game by Drew Neitzel helps MSU get the victory that seals an NCAA berth in a rebuilding year. Suddenly, MSU has won three of four in the series ... and is in control in Madison 10 days later. The Spartan lead for much of the game on senior day for Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor, but Taylor emerges from a slump to hit a long 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left for the 52-50 win.
    Six days later, the Badgers are fired up and finally handle the lesser Spartans, 70-57. In the waning moments, Tucker does a little hot dogging, some crossover dribbling, hits a stepback 3-pointer, and Izzo is visibly upset. His postgame greeting for Ryan is abrupt and chilly -- like, 2004-chilly. A couple days later, asked about Tucker's antics, Izzo dodges the question but says, "Maybe we'll get a chance to make a shot some time."
    2008: So here we are, another year with no Big Ten title for MSU. Wisconsin is closing in on its first since 2003. Ryan is 9-3 against Izzo and is favored to make it 10-3 on Thursday in Madison. That means, of course, that the series is 3-3 in the past six.
    Most MSU fans, it seems, think Ryan is the spawn of Charles Manson and Beelzebub, but there's no denying his greatness as a coach. He hasn't had big tournament success, but he has a Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, and his tourney record is 8-6 since arriving. MSU's NCAA record in that time? Yes, 8-6, albeit with the 2005 Final Four.
    Has Ryan outcoached Izzo? He has beat him several times with less-talented teams. But then, Ryan does that to a lot of teams. That's not to say he hasn't had talent in Madison. The Zach Morleys and Charlie Willses notwithstanding, he had Devin Harris from 2002-04, and Alando Tucker from 2003-07 (with a redshirt year in 2004). First-round picks. This is his first season without one, but this team still has a lot of very good players.
    I do believe Ryan had Izzo a bit perplexed for the first couple years. That offense carved up MSU. But the Spartans easily could have won the final two games in 2004 and the first one of '05. Since then, they've split. Izzo has thrown himself into countering Ryan's strengths, and the Spartans defended the Badgers masterfully in the first two meetings last season.
    Izzo said this Monday about his Wisconsin frustration: "Sure it's an issue. It's an issue all the time, especially when a couple of those could have been for Big Ten championships. Early on it was an anger thing, just like Michigan."
    He also said: "Yeah, they've been a thorn in my side, but like everything else, it's cyclical."
     And: "They've earned it. They haven't cheated their way through it, they've earned it. So now we've got to try to (turn it around)."
    It should be a great series moving forward. And it already has been. Ryan is 9-3, but five of those victories were pulled out in the waning seconds. You've got the Torbert tip, two straight Harris daggers in '04, blown MSU free throws, the incredible MSU collapse in '05 and Kam Taylor's answered prayer a year ago. This series since 2002 could easily be 8-4 Izzo -- which is what makes it MSU's chronically arthritic knee.




About the author

Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter

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