I understand that many sports fans are more casual followers of college hoops, and perhaps many don't pay close attention until Selection Sunday, when they can start filling out their own brackets. However, when I hear someone say nothing matters until March, I can only assume that person has spent little, if any, time in a Big Ten arena during the conference season.
If conference play doesn't matter, I would guess that person will not be sitting in the Kohl Center for tonight's game between the Badgers and Michigan State. I would guess that person has yet to make an appearance in the Breslin Center in East Lansing. Perhaps that person has never seen a Purdue-Indiana game. Ever been to Mackey Arena? You should have been there last Thursday as the Badgers and the Boilermakers were going down to the wire. The noise in that building could make your ears bleed.
How about last Sunday's crowd at the Kohl Center, as Wisconsin rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Penn State in overtime? If that game did not matter, the crowd sure fooled me. Did you catch the end of last Saturday's Illinois-Indiana game? Demetri McCamey hits a shot at the buzzer to give the Illini a two-point win. Catch the emotion from the crowd at Assembly Hall, and also notice the dejection of the Indiana players as they knew they let one slip away. I would suggest it is quite a bit different from losing a January NBA game.
Tonight's game in Madison is one that needs no hype. While Bo Ryan avoids using the word "rivalry," Michigan State's folks are more inclined to use that word. I've always liked the way Barry Alvarez would describe games such as this. "Big on big," he would call it, meaning you have two really good teams ready to have at it.
Let's face it, the Spartans are on a roll. They are off to their best start ever in Big Ten play, not that it has always been easy. In fact, their last two road games were one-point victories, another first in MSU basketball history. On Saturday against Northwestern, they broke open a tight game in the second half with one of those typical Michigan State runs, when the Spartans were able to get out in the open court and make big plays. The biggest came from Chris Allen, who flew along the left baseline, wound up with his right arm, and then threw down as powerful a dunk as I have seen in college ball all season.
Yes, the Spartans are rolling. They also have never beaten the Badgers in Madison since Bo Ryan has been the UW's head coach, a fact I'm sure Tom Izzo knows all too well. Much is made of the two coaches in this "rivalry," and those who know both men have told me that they are much more alike than you might believe. One thing is certain. Both Izzo and Ryan are among the best coaches in the business, and it is always entertaining when their teams play each other.
One more thing is certain. Don't try to tell either coach that nothing matters until March. Again, I get everything that goes with March Madness. I love it. Who doesn't? But these two coaches also put quite a bit into winning the Big Ten title. Michigan State is threatening to run away from the field. Tonight is Wisconsin's chance to bring the Spartans a little closer to the pack.
Yes, that matters too.