Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 19, 2014

It's official: America has fallen in love with Michigan State. It?s mad-crazy tattoo-her-name-on-your-chest love that has mushroomed in a flash, going from 7th-grade crush to full-grown infatuation/borderline stalking.

It just seemed like last week when some were shoveling dirt onto the Spartans after a disappointing 12-6 Big Ten season that was ruined by a litany injuries. Wait, it was last week.

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Michigan State limped into the Big Ten tournament going 5-7 in its last 12 games. The Spartans were a No. 3 seed, a listing ship looking to get on track with the NCAA tournament on the doorstep. The clock on this once-promising season looked like it soon would expire.

Then-after three transformative days in Indianapolis-everything changed. Not only did Michigan State get on track, it dominated, blowing the doors off the competition.

Northwestern got thumped, 67-51.

Wisconsin got whipped, 83-75.

Michigan got dumped, 69-55.

The love fest began.

This was more like it, Dick "Ba-byyyyyyy" Vitale screamed at TV cameras. This was how it was supposed to have been all season-and was early on–before players began to take turns getting hurt and/or sick. After a win vs. Indiana on Jan. 21, Michigan State was 18-1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation, riding an 11-game winning streak. The team got that mojo back last week. And its timing was perfect. Digger Phelps hi-liter agreed.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Spartans left a lot of wreckage in their wake in reclaiming a reputation that branded them the Big Ten?s best team when the season dawned way back in October.

?There are people around here that pronounced us dead a week ago,? said MSU coach Tom Izzo. ?All of the sudden we went from the ugly duckling to the prom queen.?

But Izzo isn?t ready to chug his own green Kool-Aid.

?We?re not back yet,? Izzo.

He also added: ?There?s still so many inconsistencies when you look at the film.? And this: ?We have to get more out of our bigs.? And this: ?We have so much growth yet, and we have to do it in a quick period of time.?

That?s classic coach speak. You?d think Michigan State was Muskegon State after reading those woe's-me Izzo quotes. Nobody?s buying the self-critique ? certainly not the nation?s pundits.

It seems every over hair-sprayed TV foof with a bright blazer, bracket and Sharpie has scribbled in ?Michigan State? for the Final Four. Some even have the Spartans winning it all. Just ask 'em. They'll scream it back at you. I promise.

I get it. I was thisclose to getting a Spartans tattoo before I left Indianapolis. But, I didn?t. Why. Because I think Wisconsin may have the best shot of any Big Ten team to cut down the nets in Jerry Jones? giant flying saucer of a stadium.

Yes, Wisconsin has a better shot than Michigan State to reach the Final Four. Let me type that again: Wisconsin has a better shot than Michigan State to reach the Final Four.

This may be Bo Ryan?s best Badger team. And it often played like it during the regular season, when it opened 16-0 and rose to No. 3 in the nation. Save for a bizarre stretch that saw Wisconsin inexplicably lose three home games in a row for the first time since the Stone Age, Wisconsin has been the epitome of excellence in finishing second in the Big Ten. And I think it learned and will be motivated by losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tourney.

This is a hungry team. This is a motivated team. This is a team that cherishes the ball. This is a team full of talented offensive players who can shoot. There?s Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust, Josh Gasser and Sam Dekker. And don?t forget about Traevon Jackson and Nigel Hayes. Plus, Bronson Koenig keeps getting better for a team that late in the season ripped off eight Big Ten wins in succession. In fact, at one point this year, the Badgers were 4-5 in the Big Ten and then went 8-1 down the stretch heading to the Big Ten tourney. No conference team was better.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Another reason to like Wisconsin is its bracket. The Badgers open play virtually on their home court, playing in the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. And look at Wisconsin?s draw in the West Region, one of the weakest in the field. The No. 2 Badgers open with No. 15 American in a region with No. 1 Arizona, No. 3 Creighton and No. 4 San Diego State.

That's not exactly Wichita State, Duke and Louisville, which is what No. 2 Michigan faces in the Midwest. Nor is it Virginia, Villanova or Iowa State, which is what No. 4 MSU faces in the East.

If Wisconsin gets by American, it likely will face No. 7 Oregon to get to the Sweet 16. Win that, and Creighton likely looms. Beat Creighton, and Arizona figures to stand between the Badgers and their first Final Four since 2000.

"They won't hear from me that we're a No. 2," Ryan said. "They won't hear from me that we're playing a No. 15. They won't hear from me that we're in Milwaukee.

"My guys are pretty smart. I think they know where we're going. I think they know what's at stake."

I know I do: A trip to the Final Four for a terrific team that has a favorable path to the Promised Land.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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