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Wisconsin Is Michigan State’s Real Rival

When it comes to both basketball and football, the Badgers are our true rival in recent history.

Wisconsin v Michigan State Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

As we close out rivalry week here at SB Nation, we,should pose the tough question of asking as Michigan State Spartans who our true rival is. Be honest with yourself, as much as we hate the Michigan Wolverines, if you had to pick a school in both sports that has been the team we battle it out with for conference titles, wins that matter in post-season bowl game or tournament selection, and have generally just plain mattered more, you are lying to yourself if you don’t pick the Wisconsin Badgers as the first school that comes to mind.

While the SBNation Reacts polling may suggest we like to beat Michigan, and I am right there with everyone else, it was not the best way to prove the theory of who our rival is overall.

Sure, we hate Michigan, but Wisconsin is actually competition.
Wisconsin was not an option on this one if I recall.


Michigan last won a conference title in 2004. MSU last won it in 2015. In that same span, MSU shared a title in 2010 with Wisconsin, fell to the Badgers in 2011 for the title in one of the best B1G title games thus far, and scored a huge upset in 2012 in Camp Randall on the way to bowl eligibility.

Meanwhile, Michigan State has had some great wins over Michigan, sure. However, outside of great bragging rights the game has meant very little in the overall scheme of things. The 2011 contest was perhaps the closest as the Spartans had just a one game lead over Michigan in the division standings at the end of it. The 2013 and 2014 beat-downs of Michigan saw MSU win the division and come in second respectively, while Michigan was in second then third to last place.

Of course, 2015 had one of the most instant classic endings in sporting history, but MSU won the division while Michigan would finish in an all-too common third place. Michigan 2016’s team finished in third, 2017 MSU tied for second while Michigan was in fourth, and 2018 saw Michigan finally tie for the division while losing the tie-breaker to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Even 2019 saw the Wolverines in yet another third place finish.

Even with our down years of late, those early decade games against Wisconsin had more importance in division and bowl game standings than beating our in-state foe. Now I am not saying the Michigan game was irrelevant or had no meaning. That would be insanity. I am, however, posing the point that if it weren’t for division realignment, MSU and Wisconsin would be far more worthy of calling their games a rivalry that matters in terms of importance for title races.

Other fun fact, for rivalry trophies, MSU’s Old Brass Spittoon finished third in polling:


The fun thing about being the king in the conference on the hardwood is the fact that everyone thinks they are your rival. For the justification for why MSU is the top dog in the conference, Sam had an excellent article yesterday making the clear case on why that is while exploring who he believes MSU’s rival has been and will be in the future. However, I am here to point out that it is in fact Wisconsin so far this millennium.

For laughs, though, take a look at everyone who picked MSU as their basketball rival, or named the Spartans as a top contender for that pick. (Note: Purdue did not break down by sport or else I am confident MSU would have been an also received votes behind Indiana)

When we break down the records, Wisconsin is the most consistent challenger to MSU’s dominance in the Big Ten this century. Since 2000, Wisconsin has won three conference tournament titles and five regular season titles. This is in contrast to MSU’s eight conference titles and five conference tournament titles.

As for Michigan? They finished with two regular season titles and two tournament titles. That is hardly a resume that can compare overall. Even post-season success is not much to write home about. Wisconsin made the Final Four three times in that span (including once losing to MSU). They also made four trips to the Elite 8, and had a 19 straight NCAA tournament streak from 1999 through 2017. Michigan only made two Final Fours and three Elite 8 trips. Michigan fans may counter here with the point they made the title games both times, but Wisconsin did once as well with neither team taking it home. So what?

Michigan State of course has an active tournament streak of 22 straight appearances now, won the title in 2000, was runner-up in 2009, made seven Final Four appearances, and nine Elite 8 appearances. Between the two, Wisconsin is clearly our nemesis. However, it is not just title resumes, but also the games themselves. Wisconsin and MSU have consistently been sitting at the top of the conference standings just about all century. MSU has finished outside the top-four just four times, and Wisconsin only once dating back to 2000. Michigan has failed to finish in the top-four ten times.

Bo Ryan also had the most success of any head coach in the Big Ten in head-to-head results against Tom Izzo. His abrupt retirement in December 2015 left his record at 16-12 against against Coach Izzo. That leaves him in rare air as one of the few conference foes to have a winning record against the hall-of-famer. All of it adds up to the point that Wisconsin is MSU’s true rival when it comes to the two biggest sports in college athletics if we look at it purely in the angle of games that have the most at stake.

Ohio State is certainly a close second for this distinction. The Buckeyes match Wisconsin with five conference titles since 2000 and best them with four tournament titles (titles in 2000 and 2002 were vacated). Football also had importance from 2013-2015. However, the longevity of Wisconsin in basketball bests the Buckeyes in this regard.

These last three are just for humor. Obviously the Penn State Nittany Lions and Iowa Hawkeyes do not come close to the level of success in basketball the Spartans have had. The Maryland Terrapins came into the league with a lot of hype, and have been competitive with the Spartans in head-to-head results. However, they only have one conference title to their name, while MSU has three to go along with two tournament titles in that span as well.

So with that, I declare that the defense rests with the case being closed on why the Badgers are our real rival so far this century when it comes to both major sports.