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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Rivalries: Retrospective and Prospective

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

As our two-week rivalry week period comes to a close, I wanted to do a bit of a holistic recap of the men’s basketball program’s rivalries in the last two decades, and a look at which programs seem poised to fill the role in the coming decade as we look ahead to the close of Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State (I am unsure whether he will see-out the decade, but I would be surprised, though delighted, if he coached into the 2030s).

While Michigan State has maybe its dearest and most cherished traditional rival in Michigan, it is safe to say that, as the marquee program in the B1G, Michigan State is open to all-comers, and has been since the the late-1990s. At various points, in Izzo’s tenure, Michigan State has had dips in form, but it is quite clear that the program has remained atop the league’s pedestal in basketball for over 20 years now.

In the KenPom era (complete-data from 2002-2020, and, for conference info, all the way back to 1997), KenPom tracks, among other things, regular-season champions, tournament champions, and the “best team” in a given conference year. Here are the summary statistics from 1996-97 through 2020 (that is 24 years); co-champs counted equally; conference tournament not held in 1996-97 or 2019-20...

Michigan State:

Regular season champs - 10 (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2018, 2019, 2020)
Tournament champs - 6 (1999, 2000, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2019)
“Best Team” - 7 (1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2016, 2019, 2020)


Regular season champs - 5 (2002, 2003, 2008, 2015, 2020)
Tournament champs - 3 (2004, 2008, 2015)
“Best Team” - 4 (2004, 2008, 2014, 2015)

Ohio State:

Regular season champs - 5 (2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012); 2 vacated (2000, 2002)
Tournament champs - 4 (2007, 2010, 2011, 2013); 1 vacated (2002)
“Best Team” - 4 (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012)


Regular season champs - 3 (2010, 2017, 2019)
Tournament champs - 1 (2009)
“Best Team” - 3 (1998, 2017, 2018)


Regular season champs - 5 (1998, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005)
Tournament champs - 2 (2003, 2005)
“Best Team” - 3 (2003, 2005, 2006)


Regular season champs - 3 (2002, 2013, 2016)
Tournament champs - 0
“Best Team” - 1 (2002)


Regular season champs - 2 (2012, 2014)
Tournament champs - 2 (2017, 2018); 1 vacated (1998)
“Best Team” - 0


Regular season champs - 1 (2020)
Tournament champs - 0
“Best Team” - 0


Regular season champs - 0
Tournament champs - 2 (2001, 2006)
“Best Team” - 0


Regular season champs - 0; 1 vacated (1997)
Tournament champs - 0
“Best Team” - 1 (1997)

[Not pictured: Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State]

Now, obviously, none of these challengers have put up a consistent challenge, hence I think it would be reasonable to say that Michigan State under Tom Izzo has no true rival. But there have been clear moments of ascendancy from a number of these programs and one significant dip in Michigan State’s dominance from 2002-2008. During those halcyon days (for the rest of the conference), Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, and Wisconsin made their presence known to significant degree.

Those were teams filled with such villains as...

Devin Harris, Alando Tucker, Mike Wilkinson, Brian Butch, Kammron Taylor, and Trevon Hughes (Wisconsin):

Terence Dials, JJ Sullinger, Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, David Lighty, Jamar Butler, John Diebler, Evan Turner, and Kosta Koufos (Ohio State):

Frank Williams, Brian Cook, Robert Archibald, Dee Brown, Roger Powell, Deron Williams, Luther Head, James Augustine, Brian Randle, Chester Frazier, and Demetri McCamey (Illinois):

Jared Jeffries, Tom Coverdale, Dane Fife (!), AJ Moye, Kyle Hornsby, Bracey Wright, DJ White, Armon Bassett, Roderick Wilmont, Eric Gordon, and Jordan Crawford (Indiana):

Well... they had their fun.

Since 2008, Michigan State has not let more than one year pass without winning at least one of the conference regular season or tournament championships. During this stretch, first Wisconsin, then Ohio State, and, finally, Purdue and Michigan have all reared their heads as challengers to Michigan State’s dominance, and each have been outlasted, or outright defeated in their challenges.

Make no mistake, despite prevailing, Michigan State has had some BATTLES during this incredible stretch:

Vs. Wisconsin:

Vs. OSU:

Vs. Michigan:

Vs. Purdue:

I honestly am not sure I can pick a most-detested rival; in part because I lack the vitriol for any of these programs that many Spartan fans do. Wisconsin, OSU, and Purdue have been the most consistent challengers in the last decade-plus of Michigan State dominance, so picking any of the above would certainly be reasonable.

But what does the future hold?

At this point, the conference has never been stronger on the basketball court. While the Big XII has taken the crown for best conference most years in the last decade, the conference rarely has a truly competitive race: Kansas wins almost every championship, with Iowa State contributing the biggest challenge to complete dominance. The Big XII also rarely does much of anything in the NCAA tournament outside of Kansas.

The ACC, another strong conference, rarely produces much outside of Duke, UNC, and UVA, but carry a ton of really poor teams in the conference with almost no parity outside of the top five or so teams.

The Big East, like the Big XII, is, for all intents and purposes, another one-team conference with Villanova completely dominating the conference with little challenge to really speak of since the Big East lost Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, etc.

The SEC, too, is basically Kentucky, with a dash of Florida and Tennessee.

Furthermore, the B1G has the most incredible set of coaches of any conference in the country from what I can tell. With even mid-level and bottom-tier programs having terrific coaches that cause problems for the dominant teams.

So which teams will pose real threats to Izzo and Michigan State in the coming decade? My most-likely candidates include:

Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Painter has really solidified his program as nearly-always terrific, Holtmann and Gard have done a solid job maintaining the levels of OSU and Wisconsin, and Underwood has rejuvenated the Illinois program in a way that Miller, Howard, and Pitino have failed to accomplish with any clear consistency.

Within this set of four programs I will nominate Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois as my most likely bets for consistent rivals over the decade (at least for as long as Underwood stays at Illinois).

All three schools have terrific home-courts, great head coaches, huge basketball traditions and pride, and coaches that are hungry. Gard really found his groove this past season and returns his entire rotation, Underwood had his team poised just below the trio of co-champions this year, and Painter, despite a down year, returns a ton of talent next year, likely adds by subtracting Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern, and brings in a number of recruits that really suit the work-ethic of the program. The first year of this new decade of rivalries could be a real doozy!


Gard returns his entire team looking for a back-to-back share of the B1G conference title.

Wisconsin’s projected lineup (2020-21):

1) D’Mitrik Trice (6’0” sr), Lorne Bowman II (6’2” 4* fr)
2) Brad Davison (6’4” sr), Trevor Anderson (6’2” sr), Jonny Davis Davis (6’4” 3* fr)
3) Aleem Ford (6’8” sr), Tyler Wahl (6’7” so), Jordan Davis (6’4” 3* fr)
4) Nate Reuvers (6’11” sr), Ben Carlson (6’8” 4* fr)
5) Micah Potter (6’10” sr), Joseph Hedstrom (7’0” so), Steven Crowl (6’10” 3* fr)

This team, starting five seniors and bringing a sixth off the bench, will have Wahl and Carlson likely rounding out their rotation with Bowman and the Davis twins likely fighting for the ninth spot in the rotation. Final-four level team here.


Underwood, particularly if he can get Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu to return for one more year in orange, has some serious momentum building on the recruiting front and a formula and coaching style that has been proven to produce terrific teams.

Illinois’ projected lineup with Dosunmu and Cockburn returning (2020-21):

1) Trent Frazier (6’2” sr), Andre Curbello (6’0” 4* fr)
2) Adam Miller (6’3” 4* fr), Austin Hutcherson (6’6” RS jr)
3) Da’Monte Williams (6’3” sr), Jacob Grandison (6’6” RS jr)
4) Ayo Dosunmu (6’5” jr), Bosmans-Verdonk (6’8” so), Coleman Hawkins (6’8” fr)
5) Kofi Cockburn (7’0” so), Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6’9” jr), Jermain Hamlin (6’10” so), Brandon Lieb (7’0” fr)

If both of those guys return, I see Underwood starting four guards/wings and playing small as often as possible, while still having the chance to play big if necessary. Curbello and Miller are terrific players, and Hutcherson and Grandison have a TON of talent (but need health and to find a groove). That is potentially seven really strong guards/wings. The question is whether Bezhanishvili can re-locate his game and whether any of the other young bigs and forwards can provide consistent performances off the bench. This is a potential Final-four squad.


Painter, in his own right, has had Izzo’s numbers plenty in recent years, particularly at home, and has shown the ability to adapt his style to his personnel.

Purdue projected lineup (2020-21):

1) Eric Hunter (6’4” jr), Isaiah Thompson (6’1” so)
2) Sasha Stefanovic (6’4” jr), Brandon Newman (6’5” so), Jaden Ivey (6’4” 4* fr)
3) Mason Gillis (6’7” so), Ethan Morton (6’6” 4* fr)
4) Aaron Wheeler (6’9” jr), Emmanuel Dowuona (6’10” so)
5) Trevion Williams (6’9” jr), Zach Edey (7’3” 4* fr)

Williams and Wheeler should have a much greater comfort level as an inside-outside duo (with Wheeler, in particular, likely to have a big season after a sophomore-slump). Hunter, Stefanovic, and Thompson all provide solid returning back-court minutes, but the newcomers in red-shirts Gillis and Newman, and the true freshment Morton and Ivey, should provide a TON of competitive fire, defensive tenacity, and perimeter scoring that Purdue just did not have last season (with the regrettable offense of Eastern and Proctor). This team is not a sleeper team because I am telling you that they will be really good.

Finally, even Ohio State and Michigan should be in position to continue to give the Spartans problems, though I do, generally, see them (and Indiana) more in the second-tier of challengers.

Ohio State:

For OSU, Holtmann brings in a bunch of talented players while returning most of his major contributors from last year.

1) CJ Walker (6’1” sr), Abel Porter (6’3” sr)
2) Duane Washington (6’3” jr), Justin Ahrens (6’5” jr), Eugene Brown III (6’6” 3* fr)
3) Seth Towns (6’7” sr), Justice Sueing jr (6’6” sr), Musa Jallow (6’5” sr)
4) EJ Liddell (6’6” fr), Zed Key (6’8” 3* fr)
5) Kyle Young (6’8” sr), Ibrahima Diallo (6’10” so)

While OSU has a number of question marks, and some possible front-court depth issues, they return six rotation-level guys, add three more good-to-great transfers in Porter, Towns, and Sueing, and have some talented younger players in Key, Brown, and Diallo. This team should be solidly in the NCAA tournament, with a higher ceiling if Towns can really take a starring turn.


For UM, Howard returns a ton, adds some solid freshmen, and should settle down next year, but I do wonder at the future of the team for his second recruiting cycle (though landing the three guys he already has, especially Bufkin, is a great place to start).

1) Zeb Jackson (6’3” 4* fr), Mike Smith (5’11” sr)
2) Eli Brooks (6’1” sr), Chaundee Brown (6’5” sr - if eligible), Adrien Nuñez (6’6” jr)
3) Isaiah Livers (6’7” sr), Terrance Williams (6’6” 4* fr)
4) Franz Wagner (6’8” so), Brandon Johns (6’8” jr)
5) Hunter Dickinson (7’1” 4* fr), Austin Davis (6’10” sr)

Assuming Wagner, Livers, and Chaundee Brown all suit up for Howard, this team should be one of the top-five teams in the league. Dickinson and Jackson are going to be very good freshmen, and Smith, Brooks, Johns, and Davis provide a ton of quality as veteran bench players. I will be very interested to see if Williams and Nuñez can provide much - if they can then it will indicate that Brown, Smith, or Johns have fallen in the depth chart.

What are your thoughts on Michigan State’s most likely rivals on the hardwood in the coming decade?

And, above all...