When the game went into overtime, you knew Wisconsin would win.
Tom Izzo and Michigan State had the top-seeded Badgers on the ropes, taking a 59-52 lead with under six minutes to play. But once Bo Ryan’s team stormed back to force the extra period, there was little doubt they would prevail.
After all, that’s what Wisconsin does.
We didn’t learn much about the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, but we sure as hell learned a lot about the Spartans. It confirmed their 8-2 run (including another loss to Wisconsin) since mid-February wasn’t a fluke and that Tom Izzo once again had his team hot at the best time of the year.
Three weeks later, Wisconsin and Michigan State are still playing – representing half of college basketball’s remaining survivors at this weekend’s Final Four. And if things go right, they’ll be playing each other in a championship game that means a little more than the one at the United Center last month.
Regardless of what happens in Indianapolis, these two programs’ separate March runs have taught us that, for better or worse, they are the identity of Big Ten basketball.
In a season that wasn’t exactly spectacular for the conference in the polls, it’s only fitting Michigan State and Wisconsin would quite literally carry the Big Ten’s reputation all the way to the biggest stage in college basketball. Especially after their barnburner in Chicago three weeks ago.
Remember when everyone said the Big Ten wasn't that good this year? Yea, me too.
— Frank Kaminsky III (@FSKPart3) March 29, 2015
Don’t be fooled: This doesn’t make the Big Ten the best conference in the country this season. At this point, I think it would only be fair to give that distinction to the ACC. But it does make it pretty clear who the conference’s royalty is.
“Up year” or “down year” for the Big Ten, there will always be the Spartans and Badgers. And, as has become rather obvious, that’s because Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan are damn good at what they do.
Izzo and Ryan became Big Ten counterparts starting in the 2001-2002 season. Since that point, both programs have made the NCAA tournament every single year. For fourteen consecutive seasons, both Michigan State and Wisconsin have filled two of those 64 little bracket slots we print off every March.
As you could guess, they have two of the longest active NCAA Tournament streaks.
In those fourteen seasons, Tom Izzo has gone to nine Sweet 16’s and Bo Ryan has gone to seven. The last time neither were coaching in the tournament’s second weekend was 2007, and this season is the sixth time they’ve been there together.
And now, for the first time, they’re both in the Final Four.
The two teams couldn’t have had more opposite paths to Indy, and that’s a microcosm of the two coaches’ overlapping tenures. While Izzo’s peak in East Lansing came during 1999-2001 – three straight Final Fours and a national title – Bo Ryan is currently in the midst of his.
Despite fourteen consecutive trips to the dance, Ryan hadn’t busted through the Final Four ceiling until last season. This year, his Badgers were a favorite to get back, and they delivered. Any questions about Bo Ryan winning the ‘big ones’ have been answered resoundingly.
On the other hand, Izzo answered those questions long ago by winning a national title in his fifth season. When he and MSU made back-to-back Final Four trips in 2008 and 2009, we all knew Izzo still had it. That’s why this year’s run while unexpected, isn’t surprising.
Over the years, Michigan State and Wisconsin haven’t exactly been clones of each other on the court – MSU likes to run a lot and Wisconsin’s big men are usually much more versatile – but they have two glaring similarities.
Their coaches stick to their system, and they play stifling defense.
The identities of Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan’s teams haven’t changed, and that’s why the identity of Big Ten basketball hasn’t either. This season, that identity was fueled by public perception to be “weak.”
Don’t tell that to Wisconsin and Michigan State.
(Featured Image courtesy of Andy Manis)