Often ignored nationwide when top college basketball rivalries are talked about, Marquette-Wisconsin — especially in recent years, with each team making annual trips to the NCAA Tournament — is as good as it gets.
Saturday at BMO Harris Bradley Center, the schools will meet for the 119th time, and folks inside state lines know how important this game is; recruiting battles and bragging rights will be decided, and NCAA paths better defined.
“Wisconsin versus Marquette is really important on a lot of different layers to a lot of different people,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said this week. “We typically always play this time of year. It’s 2-2 in the time I’ve been here. We’ve each won on each other’s home floor.”
This time around their early-season records aren’t sparkling — Marquette is 5-2 and Wisconsin 6-3 — and both teams badly need a victory. FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s Golden Eagles writer Andrew Gruman and Badgers writer Jesse Temple cover these teams and can separate fact from folklore in a five-question point-counterpoint.
1. Judging by what you’ve seen so far in the nonconference season, can your team be as strong by this March as it was last March?
GRUMAN: Buzz Williams always has his teams playing better in March than they did in November and December. That being said, it’s evident this Marquette team doesn’t have the firepower of Williams’ earlier squads. There is no NBA-level talent on the roster.
Last season, the Golden Eagles relied heavily on the scoring of Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Both are in the NBA now, and no one has come close to filling the void. This comes as no surprise to Williams, especially with talented sophomore guard Todd Mayo academically ineligible. He knew this was going to be a work in progress. It’s hard to doubt Williams given the track record he has, but it’s tough to say right now this has the potential to be the Sweet 16 team it was last season.
TEMPLE: Even the most die-hard Wisconsin fan would have to admit it’s going to be awfully difficult for the Badgers to match the success they experienced last season and in seasons past. This team is missing a veteran presence at point guard and wasn’t prepared to handle the loss of Josh Gasser before the season even began.
Gasser was supposed to take over floor general duties for Jordan Taylor, one of the most accomplished point guards in program history. But Gasser suffered a torn ACL and is lost for the season. Last year, Taylor and Gasser combined for 214 assists — exactly half of Wisconsin’s team total.
In Gasser’s place, George Marshall and Traevon Jackson have split time at point guard. Together, they are averaging 10.2 points and 4.0 assists per game combined. They’re improving, but it’s a learning process.
Wisconsin finished 26-10 and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last season. The Big Ten is stronger than ever this year, and that could mean an end to the Badgers’ streak of top-four conference finishes under coach Bo Ryan.
If Wisconsin (6-3) is able to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this year, it would have to be considered quite an accomplishment.
2. Who is the player or coach on your team’s roster the Wisconsin-Marquette rivalry means the most to?
GRUMAN: Regardless of whether he’ll admit it, this has to be Vander Blue. Not only is Blue from Madison, but he committed to Ryan and the Badgers during his sophomore year of high school. Blue has cited the fact Wisconsin fans were posting negative comments about him on message boards in regard to academic issues as part of his reason for backing out of the commitment.
Blue has played Wisconsin twice in his career but has yet to have a breakout performance against the Badgers. No matter how much he tries to downplay it, this game is important for Blue. Given how well he has played this season, it won’t be surprising if his shining moment against UW comes Saturday.
TEMPLE: Eleven of the 16 players on the Badgers’ roster aren’t from the state of Wisconsin, so we’ll cross them off the list. That leaves two freshmen (Sam Dekker and Zak Showalter), two little-used reserves (Evan Anderson and J.D. Wise) and one player who is out for the season (Gasser).
For the sake of answering, however, I’ll go with Gasser, even if he isn’t playing. Marquette guard Vander Blue, a Madison native, was initially supposed to play for Wisconsin before de-committing and deciding on in-state rival Marquette. Blue’s decision directly impacted Gasser, who has become one of the team’s best players. It’s unclear if Wisconsin would have even offered Gasser a scholarship if Blue had stayed with the Badgers, but at the very least, his playing time certainly would have been affected
Gasser grew up in Port Washington closer to Marquette’s campus, so he understands what it’s like to be on both sides of the rivalry. It’s just a shame nobody will get to see him play in the game this season.
3. Both of your teams have been hammered this season by seventh-ranked Florida, the team that knocked Marquette from the Sweet 16 last year. Are top-10 squads like Florida really that much better than your team, or was that just a bad night?
GRUMAN: Florida has been the most impressive team in the country thus far. The Gators are crushing everybody they play. Williams called them the best team he’s ever coached against and a legitimate national championship contender. No other team in the country has more top 100 recruits on its roster than Florida.
Against the Gators, Marquette put forth its worst effort in some time, proving it wasn’t ready for that kind of stage. Florida is certainly not 33 points better than the Golden Eagles, but Marquette is not in the Gators’ league right now. It was a bad night, no doubt, but even on a good night, Marquette isn’t in Florida’s class.
TEMPLE: In past seasons, you would never suggest Wisconsin couldn’t keep pace with a top 10 team. Last year, for example, Wisconsin lost, 60-57, at North Carolina and, 64-63, against top-seeded Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament.
But the gap between the best in college basketball and Wisconsin has grown this season. Florida led by double figures for most of its 74-56 victory against Wisconsin and outrebounded the Badgers, 40-21. Ten days later, Wisconsin allowed a season-high 84 points in a 10-point loss to then-No. 14 Creighton.
That doesn’t mean Wisconsin can’t beat top-tier teams this season. The Badgers’ slow-down approach has always allowed for them to stay in games. With more opportunities for the young players to develop in games, they will get better. Plus, the Big Ten season will offer plenty more opportunities to beat a top-10 team.
4. Who’s your team’s MVP so far, and who will it be by the end of the season?
GRUMAN: So far, it’s been Blue. Finally starting to show glimpses of the five-star recruit he was in high school, Blue has improved his shot, continued to take the ball to the basket and played solid defense. In his past four games, Blue is averaging 16.3 points while shooting 49 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Blue is a vastly improved three-point shooter, a skill that was a glaring hole in his game the previous two seasons. He might have had the best game of his career against Florida, scoring 20 points on 8 of 14 shooting, but that was overshadowed by every other player grading out badly.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Blue ended up being the MVP come March, but part of what’s holding the Golden Eagles back is the lack of a clear-cut answer to this question. Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson, Trent Lockett and Junior Cadougan all could be this team’s MVP at the end of this season, but all have been far too inconsistent so far.
TEMPLE: Ben Brust has developed into the most consistent guard on Wisconsin’s team, and he gets the early-season MVP nod over center Jared Berggren.
Brust’s three-point shooting ability was never a question, but he’s found ways to expand his game inside the perimeter. This season, he is averaging 13.7 points, and he has made nearly as many two-point baskets (22) as he has three-pointers (23).
The most impressive aspect of Brust’s game, however, has been his rebounding. Four times this season, he has recorded a double-double for points and rebounds. Through nine games, he actually leads Wisconsin in rebounds at 7.8 per game. Keep in mind this is a guy who stands 6-foot-1.
As for the season-ending MVP, I’m leaning toward Badgers freshman forward Sam Dekker. He just looks more and more comfortable in the offense with each game, and he is a star in the making. Dekker is tied for third on the team in scoring (10.4 points per game) despite playing the seventh-most minutes. He’s going to be harder to keep off the floor as the season progresses.
5. Which team is going to win this game, and by how many points?
GRUMAN: The game is going to be close. Neither team has won the matchup by double digits since 2005 and there’s no reason to believe Saturday will be different. Both teams need this win badly, and the energy level in the BMO Harris Bradley Center should be high.
Both teams are pretty even, with Marquette’s guards having an edge in experience and the Badgers having mismatches with Berggren and Dekker. When the teams are this close, I’ll give the edge to the home team, especially with the added emotion of honoring former coach Rick Majerus. A lot of important members of the Marquette family are coming in to town for Majerus’ funeral earlier Saturday and will be at the game. I’ll take Marquette by five, 70-65.
TEMPLE: Marquette hasn’t played a game since Nov. 29, so the Golden Eagles have had ample time to prepare for Wisconsin. Still, I think Wisconsin will find a way to win this game by three points, even though it’s on the road.
Wisconsin has four players averaging in double figures in points and has been playing better the past two games. The Badgers destroyed a Cal team last week that had been undefeated. A win at Marquette would go a long way toward building confidence just a few games from beginning Big Ten play.