Still anybody’s ball game

by Brandon Gullicksrud, Sports Editor

With just two games remaining on their regular-season slate, Bo’s Badgers have once again found themselves in the thick of the Big Ten title race.

Sunday’s 36-point dismantling of Purdue improved Wisconsin’s conference record to 10-4 and leaves them just a game and a half back of Chris Hill and Michigan State.

Although the Badgers don’t totally control their own destiny as far as this year’s conference championship goes, a win over the Spartans in East Lansing tonight would put them in a position to at least tie for second.

Picking up a victory in the Breslin Center will be easier said than done, however.

A combination of the Badgers’ shakiness on the road and a jacked-up “Izzone” has many odds-makers betting against Harris and friends.

As unstoppable as Wisconsin has been in the friendly confines of the Kohl Center this season — notching a remarkable 15-0 record and extending its home-winning streak to 28 games — UW has looked less than spectacular on the road.

In the Badgers’ 10 games outside Madison’s city limits, they have posted a mediocre 4-6 record, including a 2-4 mark in conference play.

Add this road-game ineptitude to an already revved-up MSU crowd watching its team play at home for the final time this season, and UW’s chances tonight appear rather grim.

After all, the Spartans haven’t lost a conference game at home all year, they’re currently riding a five-game winning streak, and with a victory over Wisconsin, they would ensure themselves at least a share of the Big Ten title.

On the surface, the teeter-totter appears to lean in Michigan State’s favor.

But if there’s one thing Devin Harris, Freddie Owens and this group of Badgers has proven to us, it’s that betting against them is not a sound decision.

Last season, Bo’s boys were in a very similar position to where they find themselves now.

Heading into its Feb. 22, 2003, game at Iowa, Wisconsin had an 8-4 conference record, had to play two of its final four games on the road and had the Big Ten-leading Illinois Fighting Illini scheduled as its final contest of the regular season.

The prospect of repeating as conference champs didn’t look promising in Badgerland.

Somehow, though, Devin Harris and company managed to get through this four-game stretch unscathed and captured the university’s first outright Big Ten title since 1947.

Granted, this year’s team doesn’t have the luxury of banking on a Kirk Penney jumper or an Alando Tucker dunk to pull it out of rough stretches, but the makeup of the team remains relatively the same.

Devin Harris is still the floor-savvy point guard he’s been since he stepped on the collegiate stage two years ago, and his backcourt mates Freddie Owens and Boo Wade are still some of the league’s most solid defensive guards. Add the ever-reliable Mike Wilkinson and seasoned veteran Dave Mader to compliment this trio in the frontcourt, and UW’s starting five is as formidable as any in the conference.

As for the makeup of this year’s MSU squad, it isn’t the same type of team Coach Izzo was busting out a few years ago. The Michigan State teams of yesteryear that boasted the likes of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Petersen and Jason Richardson are no longer donning the Spartan green and white. Instead, names like Kelvin Torbert, Chris Hill and Paul Davis now headline MSU’s roster. And while these guys are also solid players in their own right, they don’t grab the attention or impose the same type of allure Cleaves and company once did. Put simply, they don’t form the juggernaut that once was Michigan State basketball.

So, if Coach Ryan is once again able to work his magic and come up with a pair of tough road wins to close out the season, where then would Wisconsin’s Big Ten title hopes lie?

Best-case scenario for Badger fans would be a shared conference championship with the Spartans.

Tomorrow night marks the final game of MSU’s regular season, and even with a loss to Wisconsin, Michigan State would still finish with a 12-4 record — which is the best mark the Badgers could wind up with.

This addresses what Wisconsin can take care of itself.

All this talk will be for naught, however, if Deron Williams and Illinois can close out their regular season with a win tonight at Purdue and another over the weekend at Ohio State.

Like Coach Izzo’s Spartans, first-year Illini head coach Bruce Weber’s team controls its own destiny in the hunt for this year’s conference title.

And with the way Illinois has been playing (the Illini haven’t lost a game since their Jan. 24 meeting with Wisconsin), the chances of them suffering a loss at the hands of either Purdue or Ohio State look slimmer than Manute Bol on the Atkins diet.

But the college basketball gods have treated the Badgers kindly in the past, so who knows how the Big Ten title picture will unfold over the course of the next few days.

Aside from the old clichés “Wisconsin will need to play one game at a time” and “Let the chips fall where they may,” Badger fans will be banking on the most appropriate saying of them all — hoping that “History does, indeed, repeat itself.”