Wisconsin-Minnesota Preview: A Thick Line Between Love and Hate

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

While we've all heard that there is a thin line between love and hate, in the case of Wisconsin and Minnesota the line is as wide as the Mississippi River -- literally and figuratively. The two rivals conclude this season's hardwood series at 6 p.m. on Valentine's Day.

On a day when love dominates the conversation, you know hatred cannot be far behind.

While we've all heard that there is a thin line between love and hate, in the case of Wisconsin and Minnesota the line is as wide as the Mississippi River -- literally and figuratively. How ironic then for the Red and White to be facing a bitter rival on Valentine's Day.

Speaking of love-hate relationships, how about Ben Brust? At the beginning of the month, I wasn't sure where I stood in my opinion on Ben Brust, calling him an "afterthought in the offense" that "can't dribble drive," all while wondering aloud (somewhat seriously) if Wisconsin would have been better off without him in the long run.

Since then Brust has become a folk hero for hitting "The Shot" and led UW in scoring three straight games. That worked out so well I think it's time to call out some more players, don't you?

Remaining with the days theme, I'm sure Mike Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and Jordan Smith have a love-hate relationship with Minnesota, having grown up in the state but now donning Wisconsin uniforms. Bruesewitz and Berggren are getting the Brust treatment from me today. Both players played horribly on offense in the last meeting with Minnesota, combining to shoot 1-for-10 from the floor and 0-for-6 on 3-pointers.

Bruesewitz, in fact, has only hit two field goals in his lifetime against his home state school, with a high-game of three points. He's also fouled out twice in five previous appearances. Somehow, Wisconsin is still 4-1 in those games. Berggren hasn't been much better, though he did have a nice game as a redshirt sophomore.

There is no better time or place for either of those two to break loose than tonight during their swan song at Williams Arena -- or else the Barnyard student section will have plenty to yell about.

The disdain between these opposing fanbases, like the Mississippi, is a' flowing. The best place to find it is over at The Daily Gopher, a place where blind anti-Bo Ryan enthusiasm grows like a super virus. As unappealing as that sounds, GoAUpher has proven to be a decent human being. After collaborating for game one of the Border Battle, Chris and I exchanged thoughts once again as the Badgers (17-7, 8-3 Big Ten) try to sweep the Gophers (17-7, 5-6) up in the Twin Cities tonight.

B5Q: Minnesota has gone 2-2 since its loss to Wisconsin, beating the teams it should -- with the possible exception of falling to a hot Illinois team at the Barn. Is it more accurate to say Minnesota is slumping or simply hit a rough patch of schedule?

Chris: Slump. There is no reason for the Gophers not to have gone 3-1 in this stretch. While no one expected them to win at the Breslin Center, that was a game they were in until they played themselves out of it with an all too familiar combo of cold shooting, defensive lapses, and turnovers. As for Illinois? See my Michigan State comments.

B5Q: Is this a "must win" for Tubby Smith? Do you think the Gophers can get an NCAA bid with a losing Big Ten record?

Chris: I don't think this is a must win. His seat is now boiling with most of the fanbase, but the fact remains that the Gophers remain very well positioned to make it into the NCAA tourney, even at 8-10 (which would require the Gophers to go 3-4 over their next 7). I do think Minnesota can get in with a losing B1G record if the "numbers" play a big role in the Selection Committees's decision (since the Gophers should have a better resume on paper than many other bubble teams). The one nice thing about the final stretch is that the 3 worst team the Gophers still have to face (Nebby, Penn State, Purdue) are their last 3 games. So if they win those they do into the B1G tourney on a roll. If they get 3 wins and one of them is from outside those 3 teams, then it means Minnesota locked up a bid by beating one of the conference's leaders.

By the way, the fact that I'm disgusted that I have to type up any of that (especially the word bubble) despite this being the most talented Gopher team since the Clem Final Four year that didn't happen is why the fanbase is so cranky right now.

B5Q: Minnesota really doesn't play at as fast a pace as I had assumed, at just over 64 possessions per game (ranking 260 out of 347). By comparison, Wisconsin averages 61.7 possessions (up to 322nd now!). Would Tubby prefer to play faster and these guys can't quite do it or have they found something that works at a slightly slower tempo?

Chris: They'd prefer to play a faster tempo. The problem has multiple layers. First, some teams (like Wisconsin and Northwestern) have simply looked to slow the Gophers down. Second, we've started to let teams heat up from 3, which negates our ability to get out in transition or push the tempo after a made basket. Third, the Gophers halfcourt offense has stagnated and they end up using up the whole shot clock (while not getting anything good) on many possessions. The final factor is that the guys don't seem to look to penetrate as much as they did earlier in the season, which means some potential quick buckets are missed in favor of more disjointed halfcourt action.

B5Q: Bring us up to speed on who is playing well and who is not for Minnesota. Who is the single most important matchup in tonight's game in your opinion?

Chris: Who is playing well is a night to night kid of question. Andre Hollins remains the most explosive point scorer, but he continues to have off nights here and there. Austin Hollins has been in a shooting funk, though it mostly seems confined to the road. And Trevor Mbakwe has been pretty effective inside despite limited touches. He's the one guy we can count on to play with the most intensity and effort every single night.

As for most important matchups? Trevor Mbakwe versus whoever you throw at him, in all aspects of the game. Obviously I'd like to see him contribute points but we also need to out-rebound the Badgers and limit your success from the outside. Strong interior defense that eliminates the need to sag and double down will be a key part of that. Equally important is whether our shooters (i.e. Andre and Austin Hollins) get hot from the outside. Because as much as I hope the team successfully utilizes Trevor on offense, deep down I expect that we'll return to stagnant offensive sets and a deep attempt later in the shot clock when pressured. If we're shooting better that won't hurt us as much.

Thanks again to Chris for the Q&A portion. Also look below to check out how much Ken Pomeroy likes the Goofs to win tonight ...

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Minnesota
Jared Berggren, Sr. C Trevor Mbakwe, Sr.
Mike Bruesewitz, Sr. F Rodney Williams, Sr.
Ryan Evans, Sr. F Austin Hollins, Jr.
Ben Brust, Jr. G Joe Coleman, So.
Traevon Jackson, So. G Andre Hollins, So.

KenPom win probability: 37% (60-57 L) 59 possessions

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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.

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