It's easy to forget, but Minnesota has been a thorn in Wisconsin's side of late. The Badgers snapped a three-game losing streak against the Gophers last year, but still has a two-game slide going up at Williams Arena. The unbalanced scheduling has limited the two teams to just one meeting each of the last two seasons, tempering the rivalry.
Wisconsin famously has four Minnesota natives on its roster, just one fewer than the Gophers have. But only Jordan Taylor has scored at Williams and no one has had much success there. A win by UW is vital to keep pace with Michigan in the upper tier of the Big Ten.
Tom from our sister site at SB Nation, The Daily Gopher, joined me to preview this renewal of the border battle. He had some interesting things to say about the rivalry, Tubby Smith and Minnesota's recruiting.
B5Q: Thanks to a midseason revival of sorts, the Gophers find themselves in bubble territory nevertheless. To get to 8 or 9 conference wins, Thursday's game with Wisconsin is basically a must-win. And it's on your campus. Is this the game of the year?
DG: I don't know that I've looked at this game as being that important. It is certainly a big game but I lump it in with all of the games we have remaining against teams above us in the standings. Considering we have lost to Iowa (twice), we need to steal one from Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State or Indiana. All home games. Wisconsin might be more winable than OSU or MSU and this is a big game but I'm not willing to label it as game of the year yet.
B5Q: The ACL injury Trevor Mbakwe suffered early on was obviously a huge loss. Based on how you've seen the team operate on the court since then, how long did the incident cloud over the team this season before they really seemed to snap out of it and move on?
DG: Mbakwe was this team's identity and it has been a difficult transition to figure out what their new identity was going to be. I don't think they really snapped out of it until after the four-game skid to start the Big Ten season. Minnesota was fortunate to have several games against weak competition after the Mbakwe injury to figure things out. Then the Big Ten season hit and they had to learn to do it against much better teams. I think they are still figuring things out but they are coming along.
B5Q: Minnesota's style has given the Badgers some problems in the last few meetings. Does Tubby have the horses to run, press and crash the boards again? Who are the fresh faces that might surprise Badger fans?
DG: We do not rebound very well anymore and we don't really press with much success. This team is a little bit different than the last few years but I am hoping we still match-up well with the Badgers who also seem to be a different team than we have seen the last few years. I could name a "fresh face" or two but it seems to be a different player every night that steps up. Freshman, Joe Coleman has been the added toughness to the team that was sorely missing after Mbakwe went down. He is fearless to the hoop and gets to the free throw line a lot. Chip Armelin has been a sparkplug off the bench lately but he is fairly inconsistent. If the Gophers play well enough to win I would imagine one or both of those guys will have to have a big game.
B5Q: Big wins at Indiana and in overtime against Illinois restored some of the team's mojo. Who has been the catalyst in the turnaround?
DG: Those games were won with completely different contributors. The starters really carried the team to the win over Indiana. Austin Hollins had 18 points, Rodney Williams had 12 and Julian Welch had 10. The Illinois win was primarily because of the play of the Gopher bench. Chip Armelin and Andre Hollins came off the bench to combine for 26 points and both played for most of (if not all) of the OT period. This team is still working things out and getting consistent production from key players is an issue. Some nights it works well with someone randomly stepping up to carry the load, other nights it doesn't work out that way.
B5Q: Has Ralph Sampson III been a disappointment as a Gopher? Has he been able to pick up the slack in Mbakwe's absence?
DG: I'll answer you second question first. NO, he has not stepped up to pick up the slack in the absence of Mbakwe. Has he been a disappointment as a Gopher? Probably, but some of that is because people were expecting more. If you accept Ralph for what he is then I think you can be OK with his career as a Gopher. He is soft, he is a jump-shooting center and he is just OK defensively. But he is also only the fifth Gopher in the program's history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 blocked shots. Also in that group is Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson and Randy Breuer so it isn't like he's been all that unproductive. The problem is people want more and at this point in his career we know what we are going to get from RSIII. Toughness and aggressiveness are just not in his nature. On any given night he can give you 16+ points and 8 rebounds but on the next he'll foul out with 4 points and 3 boards. I'm not sure if his career has been a total disappointment, but I would say that his senior season certainly has been.
B5Q: A typical season under Smith includes Minnesota jumping out to a fast start, stumbling in Big Ten play, then usually clawing its way into a 20-win season somehow. Despite some Big Ten tournament success, however, Minnesota has not won a game in the Big Dance under Tubby Smith. How can Minnesota fans be happy about Smith's tenure right now?
DG: A lot of fans are not happy with the state of the program largely for the reasons you laid out. People certainly expected in year five of Tubby Smith that the program would be further along than it is. Some of the roadblocks to success have been bad luck and some of it certainly has to be the fault of the head coach. Injuries to Al Nolen last year and Trevor Mbakwe this plus the handling of Royce White two years ago were certainly out of Tubby's control. But the transfers of Devoe Joseph and Justin Cobbs severely hurt our backcourt depth and talent. As is often the case within a fanbase there are two distinct camps forming. One that blames everything on Tubby and thinks a change is the best option. Another that believes Tubby is a victim of horrible luck and the Final Four is coming when things start going our way. Clearly Tubby is to blame for some things, has had some bad luck and we all want the program to be further along. But I currently still hold the belief that we have a better chance of having that breakout season with Tubby Smith than we do by hiring someone new.
B5Q: Bear with me on this one. Neither Wisconsin nor Minnesota has a lot of home-state talent on their rosters, but Tubby has grabbed recruits from California and down South rather than the more regional recruits that Wisconsin has signed. What are your thoughts on Minnesota players coming down to play for Bo Ryan? We've heard the excuses, ranging from "Tubby didn't want these guys" to "Tubby would have gotten them if he'd been around." Do Minnesota fans wish the program went after more local talent? Can the natives truly hate Jordan Taylor, Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren or Jordan Smith for picking Wisconsin?
DG: I don't think anyone hates Jordan Taylor for going to Wisconsin but we obviously would love to have him in maroon and gold. And I don't really feel like anyone else snubbed the Gophers to play for Wisconsin anymore than Badger fans would feel we "stole" Wally Ellenson (who we clearly didn't steal). Every one of those guys is a different story. Jared Berggren really wasn't recruited by Tubby because he was landing Ralph Sampson and Colten Iverson. Jordan Taylor committed to Wisconsin in 2006 so Tubby was way too far behind by the time he came in 2007. In 2009 Bruesewitz was arguably only the fifth best player in Minnesota and Tubby landed Royce White and Rodney Williams instead.
Really since Tubby has been here I do not feel that anyone has stolen any local talent that Minnesota wanted, it is nothing like when Monson was here. Outside of the local kids Tubby is tapping into the recruiting base he built over the years in Georgia, Tennessee and other non-midwest areas. You have to utilize the relationships you have built. We have gone after some regional kids that we just couldn't land (Adam Woodbury from Iowa, Josh Oglesby from Iowa, Verdell Jones from Illinois currently at Indiana among others).
B5Q: I think playing only once in each of the past two years has hurt this rivalry just as the Gophers were gaining back some ground. Where do you rank Wisconsin among Minnesota's basketball rivals?
DG: I think that Bo Ryan's comments earlier this week were spot on. This rivalry, while it is a rivalry, doesn't have remotely the same weight as the football game. Strictly because of the nature of the basketball season. You play 18 different basketball games and as soon as this one is over you have to start getting ready for the next one that could be in just two days. So the anticipation and the added intensity just isn't there for basketball. With that said it is a big game and beating Wisconsin is always a fun thing. Of all Big Ten basketball games, this would be the "biggest" basketball rival for sure. But when the goal is making the NCAA Tournament this is more about building the resume than it is about beating the Badgers. I'll take both!
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