MILWAUKEE (AP)—Even if it didn’t carry national implications, a game between Wisconsin and Marquette would feature more than its fair share of floor burns.
But the fact that this is only the third time both teams have been ranked in the Top 25 heading into their yearly matchup adds a new dimension to the long-standing rivalry between the No. 11 Badgers and the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles.
“It’s bigger than words,” said guard Wesley Matthews, who grew up in Madison but plays for Marquette. “It’s going to be a good game between two good teams that have such a tremendous history and background. I can’t wait.”
Wisconsin senior Alando Tucker is playing Marquette for the fifth time; he played against the Golden Eagles before redshirting as a sophomore.
“With both teams being ranked as high as they are, everybody expects it’s going to be a dogfight,” Tucker said. “It’s a big pride thing. We want to defend our title as being the best team in Wisconsin, and so do they.”
A loss in December wouldn’t do much to derail both teams’ intentions of playing deep into March. Still, it’s a big deal.
“You have two teams that are ranked and everything else that goes into it,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “That’s pretty good stuff.”
A victory at the Bradley Center on Saturday would establish state bragging rights for a year and might propel the winner back into the top 10.
“I mean, it doesn’t make or break anybody’s season,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “We both have got great leagues that we’re in and a lot of things that we want to do inside those leagues. But it’s a big game, and I think our guys understand that and I would imagine theirs do as well. I think people should have fun with it and enjoy it.”
The Badgers (8-1) have a 61-51 lead in the overall series—and, perhaps more surprisingly, are 5-2 against Marquette under Crean. That mark includes a fairly easy 77-63 Badgers victory at the Kohl Center last year.
Matthews, a sophomore, said he wasn’t happy with the way he played in that game.
“I feel like I played like a freshman,” Matthews said. “I didn’t play up to the way that I did towards the end of the season.”
Marquette (9-1) was beaming confidence after beating Duke in Kansas City on Nov. 21, and climbed as high as eighth in the AP poll.
“We have heard it a lot since we got back from Kansas City. It was, ‘Hey, great win over Duke. Now let’s beat Wisconsin.”’
But the Golden Eagles lost to North Dakota State last Saturday and weren’t able to pull away from Delaware State until late in the second half on Tuesday.
Crean has turned the intensity up a notch in practice this week—not necessarily because of the rivalry, but because he isn’t entirely happy with the way his team has been playing.
“We’ve been really critical of certain things, but at the same time trying to have a great spirit and play really hard,” Crean said.
Wisconsin hit a bump in the road, too, losing to unranked Missouri State in the South Padre Island Invitational. The Badgers also needed overtime to beat Winthrop at home.
Still, both teams are expected to be around in March.
“Let’s face it, if we weren’t even in the same state, would this be a pretty good game? Would this get attention? Sure it would,” Ryan said. “And the fact that we’re both in the same state brings even more.”
The Badgers’ strong inside game and depth should be a test of Marquette’s interior defense.
“They draw fouls at an incredible rate,” Crean said. “They really do. And they’re shooting a lot more free throws than their opponents are attempting of late. That’ll be crucial. Because a lot of times, they’re going up to score, and it’s more to get fouled than it is to score. So we’ve got to do a great job inside and be aggressive.”
Marquette’s strength is on the perimeter, with Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Matthews.
“We want to make it an up-tempo, fast game,” McNeal said. “Those guys have got a lot of talent and size down low, so we just want to basically take advantage of our strength, which is our speed.”
Matthews said the national rankings might make the game a bigger deal beforehand but don’t really make a difference once the ball is tipped.
“If we weren’t ranked and they weren’t ranked, you’d still have the same fight out there,” Matthews said.