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A walk down rivalry lane

Is there such a thing as a basketball-only rivalry? Contrasting the recent intensity of Wisconsin's games with Ohio State and familiar Minnesota got me thinking.

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Ohio State fans, enjoying their spoils...
Ohio State fans, enjoying their spoils...
Gregory Shamus

By any point of view, Wisconsin's fourth home loss of the season was disheartening. The Badgers shot terribly and still had an upset over third-ranked Ohio State at their fingertips. But they let it slip away uncharacteristically via turnovers. Another 40 minutes of proof that Wisconsin is a poor 3-point shooting team that won't stop launching them and cannot get to the free throw line only adds to the frustration of losing.

Maybe it stung a little more because it was Ohio State too. My thoughts lingered on the loss for days despite the fact that Wisconsin travels to Minnesota this week to resume its most high-profile border war on Thursday night. Because the two teams have only played twice over the past two seasons, this matchup has lost some of the luster it once had. It was not too long ago when Tubby Smith, in his second season in the Twin Cities, orchestrated one of the most heart-wrenching two-game sweeps of Wisconsin in my lifetime.

Conversely, even in defeat I derived great pleasure from how seriously Buckeyes fans were taking the matchup last weekend. The Ohio State rivalry has blossomed into something significant, thanks to two top-notch basketball programs and statements from the head coaches of UW's basketball and football teams. Meanwhile, younger generations only know the Golden Gophers as a team Bucky beats up in football every year.

Ryan's "Deal with it" quote after his Badgers upset No. 1 Ohio State last season transitioned the two basketball programs from budding rivals to entrenched ones. The phrase was transformed into an official rallying cry for the Buckeyes, used in pregame video at Value City Arena.

And even better, they think it bothers Badgers fans. Look at all the blog posts that reference it (here, here and here). The truth is it's far from bothersome really. In fact, I love it. By all means, bring it on OSU.

The best part about it is that typically, unlike Minnesota, Ohio State does in fact bring it on. After being toppled in both sports a year ago, the Buckeyes responded with force each time. Thad Matta's bunch annihilated Wisconsin, 93-65, in Columbus last March. Then a downtrodden post-Tressel football team stunned the vaunted Badger gridders in October. Saturday's win put OSU in the driver's seat for a third consecutive Big Ten hoops title, while Wisconsin is in the midst of a four-year drought.

That is enough to irritate any sports fan. The school with all the resources -- the second-largest athletic department budget in the country -- finally wised up and started bullying its mates in basketball too. Competing for superiority in two major sports is an important step towards a major rivalry though. Even better, throw in some off-the-field jabs to intensifiy the disdain.

Besides the comments by Ryan, the impeccable timing of Bret Bielema added more fuel to the fire when he lobbed unsubstantiated recruiting allegations at Urban Meyer. Bielema has been rightly ridiculed as a cry baby. On the flip side, who looked like the cry baby when Wisconsin upset Ohio State on the hardwood? Yup, man-child Jared Sullinger, who made unsupported claims that he was spit on by Badger fans when they rushed the court in the tunnel after the game before and after the game. In spite of the fact that there is no evidence of an incident, nor any corroborating witnesses from Ohio State, the Internet now treats the accusations as fact in Buckeye circles.

Look around at which basketball games we as fans get most worked up over. You'll find a distinct pattern of non-basketball incidents.

The gold standard (pun intended) for a Wisconsin basketball rival has been Marquette. The I-94 rivalry is routinely listed as one of the most hotly contest basketball rivalries in the country and part of the reason is the same public vs. private angle the Duke-North Carolina rivalry boasts. The programs are close in proximity to each other, they fight over recruits, they divide family allegiances, and on top of all that you have to work two cubicles down from John Q. Eagle and hear how great Buzz Williams' dance moves are all the time.

The fact that there is no football program actually adds to the rivalry in this case, as well as enhancing the big brother-little brother dichotomy.

When you think of hoops rivalries right now, Marquette and Ohio State have to top the list right now, with the still smoldering Michigan State feud right there with them. Remember, Dick Bennett's Final Four team lost four times to the national champion Spartans during the 1999-2000 season. And Wisconsin returned the favor by surprising the Michigan State juggernaut several years in a row after Ryan took the helm.

But what really ignited the rivalry was Tom Izzo crying about a late alley-oop from Devin Harris to Alando Tucker in 2003 and vowing "I'll remember that." That moment set off a long string of Spartan disappointments that included Wisconsin spoiling MSU's hopes for a conference title when the Spartans were all set to unfurl their Big Ten championship banner at the Breslin Center in 2004. The rivalry seemingly came full circle when the clock malfunction at the Kohl Center this season allowed Izzo to escape with his first-ever win over Ryan in Madison. This rivalry will remain strong as long as these two head coaches man their respective benches.

What I come back to is that not much is going on in the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry right now except for a few bad losses on either side. Even though the fans live along each state's longest border and in some cases compete for the same jobs, it's hard to generate much passion. End of reciprocity? That's old news. Wisconsin is grabbing its best basketball players from its western neighbors? Minnesota claims to hardly care these days.

Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa have all cycled through as basketball rivals for Wisconsin when both teams are good, but the competition experiences a lull otherwise. So it makes perfect sense that you wouldn't care anymore about UW beating Iowa than Penn State. Nothing off the court has driven those games for years -- never mind Trevor Mbakwe's lighthearted attempts to get Jordan Taylor too crunk to play Thursday.

As Ryan explained this week, there are too many games in this sport to stress any one of them to your team more than the others. Luckily as fans, we don't have that restriction. In the end, the burning aggression between fans of what goes on between the lines isn't ever restricted to basketball. Ask a Tar Heel. He'll tell you that no matter how many times Duke rolls over in football, hating the Blue Devils is a way of life.


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