The venue may be new, but the rivalry certainly is not.
On Saturday, Dec. 8, the no. 12 Wisconsin Badgers (8-1) will roll into the Fiserv Forum to face the streaking Marquette Golden Eagles (7-2) for the 125th meeting between the two long-time rivals. Wisconsin holds a 67-57 advantage all-time, though the series has been much more even after the Badgers largely dominated the first three-and-a-half decades. (UW was 32-15 through 1949.) Since 1950, Marquette actually holds a 42-35 lead; in the 21st century, Wisconsin has captured 10 of the 18 matchups.
On the court, despite their distinctly different styles, these two teams are more evenly matched than they have been for much of this decade. Marquette has traded in a bit of offensive efficiency for a much-improved defensive unit, while a healthy backcourt – led by D’Mitrik Trice – has rejuvenated a previously stagnant Badgers’ scoring attack.
But as always, these two programs are led by their star power. Even in a rivalry that includes Michael Finley, Dwyane Wade, Devin Harris, Steve Novak, Alando Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Sam Dekker, Jae Crowder and Frank Kaminsky in just the last 25 years, Marquette’s Markus Howard (22.4 points, 4.8 assists per game) and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ (17.7 points, 10.8 rebounds per game) stand out as program stars. Happ already ranks seventh in points, fourth in field goal percentage and first in total rebounds all-time at UW, while Howard – only a junior – will likely be MU’s career leader in points, field goals and three-pointers by the time he finishes his career, with several other top-five finishes across the board as well.
Now, the only thing these two need is a heated back-and-forth battle centered on their unique skill sets, something fans of this rivalry have been waiting for.
The Wisconsin-Marquette conflict has long been one of the more underrated duels in college basketball. (The lack of notoriety is partially due to UW fans inexplicably dismissing the rivalry, only to highlight its importance when the Badgers win.) But over the last six years, the games have fallen a little flat. Three contests have been decided by double-digits – including Marquette’s 19-point beat down of the Badgers in Madison last year and Wisconsin’s lethargic 49-38 win at MU in 2014. Two other games – a 2015 MU 57-55 win and a 2013 UW 70-64 victory – look close on paper, but the final score was largely skewed after back-door jobs by the losing squads.
Suffice it to say, this rivalry needs a high-profile, high-intensity clash to really get the juices flowing again. After all, it’s been nearly 45 years since Al McGuire was greeted with this friendly reaction in 1974; I’m not advocating for vulgarity, but a little more heat would be accepted. (Luckily, UW’s Brad Davison and MU’s Theo John are near-certainties to draw the ire of opposing fans and players with their respective ghastly flops and exaggerated flexes.)
This Saturday could also bring out the much-desired nail biter. (Well, maybe not too desired if you’re a fan of either team.) UW will be eager to avenge last season’s home loss while MU is hungry to prove its win over then no. 12 Kansas State is a launching point and not an anomaly. One college basketball analytics site – T-Rank – projects a 68-67 MU win. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Golden Eagles a 51.7 percent chance to win.
Essentially, it’s a pick-‘em game between two well-balanced teams, with Marquette earning the slightest statistical edge as the host. However, the road team has won each of the last four matchups in this series and Wisconsin is already 2-0 in enemy territory against high-major teams this year. A rambunctious Marquette crowd will not easily traumatize these Badgers (though after years of pre-noon tip-offs when these teams meet, this year’s 4 p.m. start should further rile up the blue and gold).
There is just something about this rivalry that moves beyond even the remarkable talent on the floor. The perfect complements of the opposing colors: blue and gold versus red and white. The opposing ideologies of each program: scorers versus stoppers. Even the inherent push and pull between the two cities: Milwaukee versus Madison.
Saturday should be a battle to the bitter end. And as always, the winner will come away with a fresh look upon the rest of the season, while the loser will be licking its wounds into conference play.