Wisconsin-Minnesota Border Battle Preview: B5Q Grills The Daily Gopher

Trevor Mbakwe, Andre Hollins (1) and Austin Hollins (20) lead a Minnesota squad blessed with length. - Joe Robbins

BORDER BATTLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Before the season began, I was a bit giddy pulling tickets to this Wisconsin-Minnesota game. Not only was it a huge rivalry game, but I thought this game could really means something in the Big Ten. And Saturday afternoon's game still does mean something.

But boy, could this game come at a less exciting time for either team? We're not talking about a run-of-the-mill five-game combined losing streak here -- we're talking about an uuuuugly one with these two squads. Both Wisconsin (13-6, 4-2 Big Ten) and No. 12 Minnesota (15-4, 3-3) are starving for a win. The game does present some interesting matchups, though, both individually and philosophically. Trevor Mbakwe vs. Jared Berggren in the post anyone?

Chris (aka GoUApher) is covering round one of the Border Battle in Madison for The Daily Gopher on the SB Nation network, so I asked him a few burning questions (...okay, some of them were just dull aches). Find the other half of our Q&A at their place.

B5Q: Well ... I did not see that coming. A loss to Northwestern suddenly has Minnesota reeling. And what's more, Wisconsin's free throw shooting inaccuracy has spread like a virus -- not only to Minnesota but to "Chicago's Big Ten team" also. What in the name of Tubby Smith's mustache is going on here? Was this shooting performance an anomaly?

The Daily Gopher: I see how it's going to be. Dredging up the painful stuff already? (Ed. note: No, I definitely saved that for question #2.) Seriously though, that was an embarrassing loss. The 1-3-1 is sort of tricky and I can understand needing a few possessions to fully adjust (actually, I can't but I'm being charitable) but watching the Gophers do the same things wrong against it for about 10 minutes in the second half was ... special. I should probably cut them some slack given the fact that Northwestern NEVER runs the 1-3-1 though right?

That said, had the Gophers been even moderately warm from the field they probably would have won without too much trouble. The futility of everyone besides Trevor Mbakwe from the field (6-of-7 compared to 12-of-47 for everyone else) combined with a 41% showing at the FT was something to behold. As for whether it is an anomaly? I'd like to say yes. The Gophers have been a pretty middling shooting team in general, but seeing them this awful was new. Usually when we can't score it's because we're turning the ball over. Oh wait, we did that too. Grumble...

B5Q: It's great to see Wisconsin's next opponent is capable of as giant a stink bomb as the one Wisconsin laid loose on Tuesday. The schadenfreude would be nearing a level not seen since 2005 if Badger fans didn't already know exactly how it feels after a game like that. What troubles you most about coming to Madison this Saturday?

TDG: /shakes fist at imaginary Phil for the FB dig

What troubles me most? For the purpose of this hypothetical I'm going to assume we shoot closer to our season averages from the field and line because if we don't, the thing that troubles me is how badly we might lose. My biggest concern is how much we turn the ball over. Giving the ball back before you get a shot off is a sin no matter what. But when you're rebounding nearly half of your misses as a team it is simply unconscionable. I really worry about handing away too many possessions against a team like Wisconsin who takes care of the ball, is efficient defensively, rebounds well, and plays at a snails pace that already limits the number of possessions you're going to get.

B5Q: So, the Gophers have shown that they will have problems in a defensive slugfest, and despite all their faults against Michigan State, at least the Badgers showed decent defense and rebounding. Can Minnesota win a low-scoring game? Or does this group need to be forcing turnovers and running to be effective?

TDG: I think they can win a low scoring game, but not if Austin and Andre Hollins are shooting poorly. We need both of those guys (especially Austin) to be able to hit the outside shot. The other key is free throws, especially from the bigs. On the off chance the refs call anything inside we need them to stop clanking away vital points. I mean, the winning score might not even be 50 after all. (Seriously, how do you not take naps watching these games?)

B5Q: Minnesota's statistical profile is very interesting as it relates to this matchup with Wisconsin. For one thing, the Gophers get almost a quarter of their points off free throws. However, UW typically doesn't bail out opponents by fouling much. Is there anyone besides Andre Hollins who can reliably score in a half-court setting?

TDG: Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman are the two I'd look for. Austin is more likely to light up a team from outside, but if Joe gets hot he has shown the ability to take over a game. I'm not sure his preference to attack the hoop matches up great with UW though. I'd love to say Trevor or Rodney Williams, but Rodney has been in a huge funk lately and for whatever reason we can't seem to feed the ball to Trevor enough. So I'm not expecting either of them to be the guy who steps up to beat the Badgers.

B5Q: Speaking of Andre Hollins, he was hailed as the next big thing over the offseason. Has anything surprised you about his play this season? Has he lived up to the hype so far?

TDG: With Andre I think any surprises have mostly been of the bad kind (i.e. when he has a truly terrible game like against Northwestern). The kid has a ton of confidence and is the kind of guy who can take over a game. I'd say he's definitely lived up to the hype. If he's hot, he can take a game over while being well defended ... he just gets into that mode where no one is going to stop him. He's an exciting guy to watch so I'm hoping that dominant Dre will show up on Saturday so you can enjoy him too.

B5Q: Another fun/scary fact: Minnesota is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing their own misses nearly half (47.9%) of the time. Yet, again, Wisconsin is among the nation's best in limiting offensive boards (26.4%). Who do you see winning this test of wills this weekend?

TDG: I'd have to give the nod to Minnesota. Against Michigan, who is even better than the Badgers at keeping teams off the glass, the Gophers still grabbed 46.7% of their misses. My big concern isn't whether we grab enough of our misses, it's whether we finish them (either from the field or from the line following a foul) or whether we take away second chances via turnovers.

B5Q: When people think of Minnesota, I believe they picture the man-child Trevor Mbakwe causing havoc and Rodney Williams dunking. Whether or not either player has panned out like fans wanted, define what would be a successful ending for those players in their senior seasons, and Minnesota as a whole now that the season is past the halfway point? Have expectations shifted in either case?

TDG: That's an interesting question. I've been so focused on the team aspect of success this year that I haven't thought much about what would constitute a successful end of a career for either guy. For Trevor, to me it would mostly be about getting drafted as high as possible. The guy has been through a lot and gave up the money to come back and play this year (no small thing when you've got kids). So in the end I just want him to leave having put himself in the best position possible professionally. For Rodney, he's close to setting some records for points/rebounds/blocks and I'd like to see him reach those.

As a team, I'd say expectations have shifted downward. Or perhaps more accurately, fans who may have gotten too excited in the first big season in years have realized (or simply been reminded) that this isn't an elite team. Up until last night my expectation was still to finish somewhere between 3rd and 5th in the B1G, a 3-5 seed in the Dance, and ideally a trip to the Sweet 16 (or at least a very competitive 2nd game loss). But the game against Northwestern raises some big question marks and concerns and has me wondering if we're not looking at a 5th or 6th place finish in the B1G and a 1st round win as the right level of expectation. Of course, some people are freaking out and talking about the bubble which is just ridiculous at this point. The bad loss to NU aside, everything still suggests this is a good team ... they simply need to resume playing like one.

B5Q: This week Williams apologized for a tweet that some have construed as criticism of Tubby. While I think this is much ado about nothing, it seems Minnesota cannot stay away from negative publicity over the last few years. I know some Gophers are actually started to get sick of this. Not to mention how the whole Royce White thing has played out (I'm curious if Minnesota fans still stand behind White). What's your take on all this, from White and Mbakwe's checkered pasts to the Saul Smith DUI to the recent tweet incident?

TDG: I'd agree that it's a big flap over nothing (though many Gopher fans aren't sold on Tubby's way of criticizing his players). As far as Royce goes, I'd say most Gopher fans don't care much one way or the other at this point. When his mess was going on most folks were annoyed with the way our AD was handling it. But this new saga isn't getting much play. The chatter I hear is the kind of talk you hear everywhere about the saga (is he making too much of his illness, is everyone ignoring the seriousness of it all, etc).

Overall my take is that I'm glad that the players have kept it together this season. Thus far (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) there have been no stupid moments from the team, be it academic performance, behavior, etc. And I think that's all Gopher fans are really looking for, no drama.

I want to thank Chris for being a good sport, even though it can be so challenging to be a Minnesota fan. For a good time, check him out on Twitter @GoAUpher and the whole lot of rabid anti-Badgers @TheDailyGopher.

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Minnesota
Jared Berggren, Sr. C Trevor Mbakwe, Super-duper 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: 56% (63-62 W) 62 possessions

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

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