With no. 15 Michigan State leading Wisconsin 59--51 and less than two minutes to go in Sunday's game at the Kohl Center in Madison, it appeared that Spartans coach Tom Izzo had finally gotten one really annoying monkey off his back. Since Bo Ryan took over the Badgers in 2001, they had beaten Michigan State five straight times. Three years ago they ended the Spartans' 53-game home winning streak; last season they ruined State's shot at a share of the Big Ten championship. But at this moment even the sellout crowd of 17,142 red-swathed fans, which had made the bland Kohl Center sound like a rollicking German beer hall earlier in the game, seemed to remember that it had to go back outside into 8? weather.
Then Wisconsin senior guard Sharif Chambliss hit a three, and the crowd found its voice. Suddenly Michigan State couldn't do anything right. As the Spartans missed free throws, fumbled rebounds and clanked three straight field goal attempts, the Badgers scored eight more unanswered points to squeeze out a 62--59 win. "It's eerie, but the last three minutes of the game played out almost exactly as we practiced it yesterday," Ryan said afterward.
The comeback extended Wisconsin's home winning streak to a nation's-best 38 games and improved Ryan's conference record at the Kohl Center to 26--0. So what exactly is the Badgers' home court advantage? Is it the end zone of 2,100 chanting students who wear tie-dyed T-shirts and call themselves the Grateful Red? Is it the Hoosiers clip of Gene Hackman urging the Hickory High kids to victory that plays on the scoreboard at critical junctures? Is it Wisconsin's fierce defense, which holds opponents to a conference-low 59.9 points a game?
All those things help, but the true answer may be simpler. "They are just a great team," says Michigan State senior center Paul Davis. "They don't have one designated superstar, so it seems anytime something starts to go wrong for them, somebody different steps up."
The Badgers' swing offense is so equal opportunity that five players have had 20-point games this season. Only sophomore forward Alando Tucker, who scores a team-high 15.4 points per game and is arguably the team's best player, averages more than 30 minutes. (Slowed by a sprained ankle, he played 26 on Sunday.)
Wisconsin's high scorer against Michigan State (15 points on five threes) was former walk-on Clayton Hanson, a 6'5" senior guard who committed to Ryan when Ryan was still the coach at Wisconsin- Milwaukee and then followed him to Madison. "He makes shots, gets steals, plays great defense. He works hard in every aspect of the game," says Mike Wilkinson, the team's leading rebounder (6.9 per game) and second-leading scorer (13.3 points). "When he's had his chances and opportunities, he's made the most of them."
The same could be said of the resilient Badgers (12--3 overall, 3--1 in the Big Ten), who on Monday entered the AP poll at No. 24. But two tough tests await: a trip this Saturday to Ann Arbor, where they have lost three straight, and then a visit from No. 1 Illinois on Jan. 25. "If we can get a few wins here and there, who knows what can happen?" says Wilkinson. "After all, this is the Big Ten."