Wisconsin vs. Minnesota preview: 3 keys to beating the Gophers

Mike McGinnis

At a time when a win would do wonders in curing the blues of the past week, Wisconsin travels to face its archival. Wednesday night should be fun.

If you're looking for a silver lining after a two-loss week, consider that it's much easier to come up with three keys for a tough conference matchup -- and rivalry, so I hear -- on the road against Minnesota (14-5 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) when the team actually plays somewhat poorly. Ok, that's a pretty lame silver lining.

Maybe try this: After losing two games in a row, the No. 9 Badgers (16-2, 3-2) fell just six spots in the Associated Press poll and are still inside the top ten. You might even make the argument that the AP poll has been pretty good this year. The writers rewarded the Badgers for a good, if not overly flashy, non-conference schedule and still seem to respect that body of work. They've kept Kansas near (but not definitively in) the elite range while that team goes about learning how to win tough games and blow everybody else out, all while looking mighty impressive. Or think about how quickly the writers dispatched Duke and North Carolina. That's just fun, though Duke has resurfaced at No. 18.

Still not convinced the last week-plus hasn't been an abject failure? Maybe try Bruce Springsteen's new record.

A rivalry win cures all ills, even for the surely-small faction of Badger Nation that doesn't also count itself among the disciples of The Boss.

Jokes aside, the Badgers do need this one. Not in a season-is-over-if-they-lose way, but in more in the have-you-seen-their-February-schedule vein.

The Gophers will be a tough out, too. They just got trounced by the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, but that's going to happen to about everybody that goes down there (check that February schedule: UW's at Carver-Hawkeye Feb. 22). Minny got a huge win against Ohio State Jan. 16 and played Michigan State to overtime in East Lansing the week before that. Not many five-loss teams have more understandable blemishes than the Gophers (No. 10 Iowa, No. 3 MSU, No. 21 Michigan, No. 2 Syracuse and Arkansas).

It all starts with the non-related Hollins kids, Andre and Austin. Both-and Andre, in particular-can light it up at any time and score in bunches. Scanning the roster, it was surprising to learn 14-year (approximation) program vet Trevor Mbakwe has seen his eligibility expire.

Okay, here are three keys. If you've watched the last two games, they should just about explain themselves.

[Man-to-man]- Bill Raftery voice

Sometimes the visiting head coach's post-game press conference is the most interesting part of the media proceedings at the Kohl Center. Don't get me wrong, Bo Ryan and his guys are usually insightful, but it's always interesting to get the outsider's view. UW-Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter is really only a partial outsider, having coached for Ryan in the past, but he said something that stuck out to me right after Wisconsin beat his Panthers 78-52 back in December. He was asked about the Badgers' defense, and he said this:

"It's just amazing that the way they defend, they do give you jump shots on the other side of [a] ball screen, but no one has figured out a way to make any of them. I watched the Florida game and [the Gators] made them early, and then they couldn't make any more. I think we made a couple tonight. I think that's what's more special about what they do is you just don't make that shot on the other side of the ball screen. The way it presents itself on tape, it's a lot different seeing it in person."

I noted that when he said it, but didn't really have any reason to bring it up until now. He also said, "You really want to get the ball inside and attack, but they do a nice job of helping and recovering.

So, here's an oversimplification: Indiana and Michigan made shots on the back side of those ball screens, and when they instead elected to turn and drive toward the hoop, the Badgers didn't do a good job of helping and recovering. Clearly, UW isn't designing their defense to allow dribblers to turn the corner off ball screens, and they don't flatly concede open jump shots on purpose. A lot of teams want the opposition to take long two's. The Badgers have been the victims of good shooting but also giving too much room, which leads to open jump shots and open driving lanes.

The Hoosiers and Wolverines combined to hit 53 percent from the field (61-of-115) and an even-better 56.8 percent (50-of-88) on 2-point tries.

Bench production (Read: Freshmen production)

Freshman forward Nigel Hayes averaged 11 points in five games between Dec. 14 and Jan. 8. He finished with seven against Michigan and six against Indiana in 16 and 14 minutes, respectively.

Bronson Koenig, an instant-offense sub and cool customer as the back-up point guard, turned in a blank stat line against Michigan in four minutes and went 0-of-4 against Indiana in nine.

Both of these guys have been impactful outside of scoring volume. Hayes gives the shooters a post touch to create space with. He also has just five free throw attempts in the last two outings after a prodigious run through the end of the non-conference schedule and beginning of conference play.

Koenig's play allowed the Badgers to keep playing at the pace they wanted without much drop-off when junior Traevon Jackson's on the bench.

Ryan's pushed these two along in ways he doesn't always do with freshmen, but he's also had Gasser running the point a little more recently. It would benefit UW if Koenig heats up.

Offensive discipline

This is what has made the Badgers so hard to stop this year. There are games where you could count the number of bad shots, at least in meaningful minutes, on one hand. In my decidedly non-expert mind, the one unforgivable offensive sequence for the Badgers was against Indiana, where they got three-point attempts from five different players and a long jump shot from Hayes in a span that saw the Hoosiers go from down 10 to up two.

Ryan insists this team will take what's given, that it's how they've always played and that they've always been opportunistic. The thinking is that it's the supply of opportunities that changes game to game, not the style of play. I buy that, 100 percent. But even in the last two games, I've marveled at post moves from everybody from Frank Kaminsky to Sam Dekker to Josh Gasser. That's roster versatility. If UW finds itself leading in the second half against Minnesota and they stay dedicated to that versatility, they'll be fine.

Bonus key

Don't go tumbling off that gee-dang court in The Barn.

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