By Paul M. Banks
When second place Illinois hosts first place Michigan State on Sunday, the battle for the Big Ten title will be yet another chapter in a decade familiar story. For the past ten years or so, the Illini and Spartans have met each other at the apex of the conference. In 1998 and 2001, they finished conference co-champions. In the latter season, they both earned #1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. In 2005, both programs reached the Final Four. In ’99 and ’00, they met in the conference tournament title game, in ’06 they squared off in the semifinals. Last season, both reached the Big Ten tourney semis. At 3pm Sunday, CBS will nationally televise the #20 Illini (23-6, 11-5) hosting the #9 Spartans (22-5, 12-3).
A rivalry reminiscent of Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons is emerging. Once again a prairie state team finds a squad from the mighty mitten across the lake in their way. But you can’t compare this Big Ten rivalry to the conference’s most bitter blood-feud yet. The football acrimony between Ohio St. and Michigan, whose oligarchy over the rest of the conference during the ‘60s and ‘70s, made critics often refer to the Big 10 as “Big 2, little 8.” By contrast, the Illini and Spartans have had company at the top. During the “oughts” (the proper name for this decade) Wisconsin had the two best seasons in school history, and both Ohio St. and Indiana played for the National title.
However, numbers show that Illinois and MSU are the creamiest of the conference crop. During the past five years, Illinois and Michigan St. are one and two in NCAA tournament wins among Big Ten teams (ninth and eleventh nationally). Before last season, Illinois was the nation’s winningest program over the previous six. After last year’s 16-19 aberration, the Illini are the nation’s tenth winningest program during the past five seasons. The Spartans boast of the most Final Fours in the nation (4) and the second most Sweet 16 appearances (7) during the past 11 years. And like most authentic rivalries, it’s evenly matched. Illinois leads the all-time series 53-52. In other words, the negative PR you’ve heard about Big Ten basketball won’t apply when the ball goes up in Assembly Hall on Sunday.
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