(photo from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
It's always a highlight of the winter sports calendar in Wisconsin and one of the best but oddest rivalries in college basketball. Every season, the Wisconsin Badgers take on the Marquette Golden Eagles. In recent years the Badgers have become a very good program and Marquette has steadily re-built its brand to a level approaching the glory years of Al McGuire. As a result, the games have been very close in recent years and yesterday's game was no exception, with MU prevailing 61-58 in Milwaukee.
It is an odd rivalry because, other than the annual game, the paths of the two schools rarely cross. The Badgers of course are charter members of the Big Ten, while the Golden Eagles hold forth as the westernmost outpost of the Big East, although historically they've played just about anyone, anytime. It's easier to wrap your mind around traditional Big Ten rivals like Purdue and Minnesota than it is to envision a conference game against Rutgers or South Florida, which Marquette now faces each year. In a lot of ways, UW and MU share a home state but little else.
Every time I see the game, I'm conflicted. I grew up with the great McGuire teams and one of the sports highlights of my childhood was the magical 1977 season when Marquette ran a gauntlet of Kansas State, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, UNC-Charlotte and finally Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels to win the national championship. I can still see it my mind's eye -- Marquette in their garish uniforms with untucked shirts, the Butch and Bo show, mighty Jerome Whitehead scoring crucial baskets, the talented Bernard Toone providing instant offense from the bench. It was a great team and a great time and while college basketball gained even greater popularity since then, it was wonderful.
In those days, the Badgers were the footwipe of the Big Ten. MU got the better of the rivalry then but since the 1990s, things have changed. The Badgers finally started to get their act together when Michael Finley came to Madison in the early 90s and under Dick Bennett and his successor Bo Ryan, the Badgers have become a force in college ball. And the rivalry has become even more intense. I root for the Badgers in most college sports, but I just can't bring myself to root for them against MU. In sports, as in everything else, you never forget your first love.