Ties that bind Badgers and Panthers are numerous

MADISON, Wis. — You could make the argument that a rivalry game isn’t a true rivalry unless both teams win occasionally. It’s been said before, and there is plenty of validity to the point.

If that is indeed the case, then what are we to make of the annual Wisconsin vs. UW-Milwaukee basketball matchup? Yes, it is one of three in-state games for the Badgers each season. But unlike games against Marquette and Green Bay, there usually is little chance Wisconsin will lose.

Consider that Wisconsin is 29-1 all-time against Milwaukee and has won 20 consecutive games in the series. When Milwaukee last won, in 1992, Badgers guard Josh Gasser was 1 year old, and several players weren’t even born. At least Marquette had won two straight against Wisconsin before this season. Green Bay won as recently as 2009 and nearly toppled Wisconsin at the Resch Center last month.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, has lost by double digits in 14 of the last 20 games. That means it isn’t a rivalry, right?

Well, not so fast. It turns out, a variety of factors make the game particularly intriguing this season.

When No. 4 Wisconsin (10-0) plays host to Milwaukee (9-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Badgers will be aiming to tie the school record for most victories to begin a season. And the Panthers, winners of five straight, already have surpassed their win total from a season ago.

“You saw what it was against Green Bay,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. “Even Platteville coming in here played very hard. Just like Green Bay, just like Marquette, all these state schools are going to be coming to get us. It’s going to be a battle. They’re playing very good basketball.”

In addition to the fact both teams are playing well, the ties that bind the two programs run deep. Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, in his ninth season in charge, is especially close with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. Jeter played under Ryan at UW-Platteville from 1987-91 and then was an assistant there from 1994-98.

“Even just coach Ryan and coach Jeter having that relationship and it being the third of our three in state games, it’s a big game,” said Gasser, a Port Washington, Wis., native. “We want to make sure we’ve got the bragging rights in the state this year.

“Coach Jeter was the first coach to offer me a scholarship, and I’ve been talking to those guys since my freshman year of high school. I’ve got a good relationship with them and their players. I know them pretty well. It’s just going to be a fun game. It’s definitely a rivalry game that I’m excited for.”

Gasser acknowledged following Wisconsin’s 70-64 victory against Marquette on Saturday that the Panthers would consider playing the Badgers to be “kind of their Super Bowl.” And players will need to be prepared for what Milwaukee has to offer.

Four members of Milwaukee’s starting five are averaging in double figures in scoring — Matt Tiby (14.7 points), Jordan Aaron (13.5), Kyle Kelm (12.8) and Austin Arians (12.6). Steve McWhorter, the team’s fifth starter, is averaging 8.4 points in his first season at Milwaukee after transferring from Indiana State. Tiby also has infused Milwaukee after transferring from junior college powerhouse Kirkwood Community College in Iowa.

Badgers associate coach Greg Gard said the team recognized the importance of this game because many players squared off against those from Milwaukee in high school. Milwaukee has 13 players on its roster from Wisconsin, and the Badgers have six.

“Obviously our target on our back is growing,” Gard said. “So we know that. You just take the best shot and everybody’s best shot. That’s nothing new. That’s been going on for earlier this year to in the past. If you can come in here and get a win, that’s a feather in that team’s cap.”

If Wisconsin can instead continue its winning ways, it will match the 1993-94 team for the best start in program history. And though players are trying not to get caught up in the records, they recognize a special season is brewing.

“The things happening here, it’s really good to see our team coming together, combining as one and wanting to do the same thing,” Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson said. “And that’s just the wanting to have success.”

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