Let the games begin, folks.
Wisconsin's proverbial second season gets underway this evening against archrival Minnesota, after the Golden Gophers held on yesterday and withstood Penn State's late rally.
I couldn't think of a better opponent for the Badgers to dispose of as they get rolling with their postseason, though a win certainly won't be easy. The Gophers undoubtedly have the most to gain during this Big Ten Tournament, as a deep run propelled by an upset of Wisconsin could earn them a bid to the Big Dance.
The Badgers split with Minnesota during the regular season, but I think the game they won is more the true indicator of what Wisconsin is as a team. In the loss back on January 22nd, the Badgers were a mere shell of themselves, and despite dropping the regular season to Nebraska this past Sunday, I think it's safe to say they're back to the top-10 caliber team we saw at the beginning of the year.
How Wisconsin handles a team fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid is the biggest question that needs answering tonight. On Sunday in Lincoln, the Badgers faced a team playing with great urgency and things didn't go their way. Will today bring with it a better result? We'll find out at 5:30 p.m. CT.
I'm not going to call today's game a must-win for Wisconsin-it most definitely isn't. However, for the sake of building up confidence and momentum for March Madness, I think a win would be huge. These are college kids, and just a game here or there-be it a win or a loss-can trip something off psychologically. In the case of the Badgers today, they play a team they know they should beat, and in the NCAA Tournament, the best teams win the games they should.
Thus, I see today's game as somewhat of a proving ground for Bo Ryan and company. The Badgers have arguably the best resume in college basketball, so we know they're legit. But, I do think a win today against a Minnesota team that has so much on the line, would stamp Wisconsin's ticket as a true Final Four contender.
Enough with my lesson on psychology though, let's get back to the hardwood. It's time for our first postseason edition of the three keys to a Wisconsin win.
Limit DeAndre Mathieu's ability to penetrate into the lane
Mathieu has been a great surprise for the Gophers this season, showcasing elite quickness and on-ball defensive skills while also contributing more than expected on the offensive end.
The 5'9" junior point guard has an elite first step off the dribble, and that single characteristic gave Wisconsin fits in game one between the Badgers and Gophers. Mathieu led the Minnesota with 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting in its win over UW in January, and only two of those makes were from outside the paint.
We've seen the Badgers struggle throughout this season defending the high ball screen, most notably in the Michigan loss at the Kohl Center. But I actually think that is how you've got to defend Mathieu tonight--don't hedge the screen at the top of the circle. Go underneath and allow him to shoot the jumper from just inside the arc. It's a low-percentage shot for one, and secondly, Mathieu is an average jump shooter.
By the same token, the Badgers can't get lazy by going underneath. One false step against Mathieu and he's inside the lane with a quick couple of bounces. If he's able to make a living in the paint tonight and either score himself or kick out to shooters, Wisconsin will be in for a fight.
The Badgers did a much better job defensively against Mathieu in these teams' second matchup, holding him to just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting. If Wisconsin can keep his numbers at bay similarly this evening, I think the Badgers advance to the semifinals.
Feed Nigel Hayes when the opportunity presents itself
When tournament play rolls around, games tend to slow down a little bit, and the teams that offensively execute in the half court are the ones that cut down nets. Freshman Nigel Hayes has excelled when he gets isolation touches in the post or extended post this season, and I think it'll be important for the youngster to get his feet wet in today's game--one with more meaning and added pressure.
You just never know how a freshman will perform when the stage is biggest and the lights are brightest, so any quality looks you can get Hayes today will bode well for his confidence through the rest of this season. He seems like a calm and collected kid, and I don't doubt that he really is, but postseason play is a different animal. Let's see how he handles things today.
The Big Ten's Sixth-Man of the Year has become a more integral part of this year's Wisconsin team than anyone anticipated coming into the season, and now, I think he holds the title of "x-factor." The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups, and Hayes is a difficult matchup, plain and simple. He rebounds, he gets to the foul line, he defends and he's got a solid jumper. When all facets of his game are tuned-in, the Badgers are as good as anybody out there.
Traevon Jackson must be better
I'm sure I'll get some flack in the comments for having Jackson as one of my keys for a second consecutive game, but he simply has to play at a higher level the rest of the season if Wisconsin is going to make a deep run.
We hear this old adage every year, but every year it is true--guard play wins in March. You've got to have a consistent floor general to win close games, and while he is clutch, Jackson needs to be more consistent, especially against top-notch defenders.
Nebraska's Benny Parker gave Jackson all sorts of trouble on Sunday, and the Gophers' Mathieu pestered him into off nights in each of the Wisconsin-Minnesota matchups this season (16 points, 4 assists/4 turnovers in the two games).
Now while he may have had his woes in those contests, drawing much criticism from Badger Nation, Jackson has the ability to control a game. Think back to the Michigan road win for Wisconsin. The Badgers' junior point guard had nine points, six assists and zero turnovers. He was the best player on the floor that day not named Frank Kaminsky. I truly think that "Michigan-win Trae" can take the Badgers a long way, but he's got to play close to that level for the remainder of the season, starting today.
Prediction: This game gives me some worries, I won't lie. But as I've predicted a few times this season, the Badgers just find a way to get the job done late. Wisconsin 74, Minnesota 70.