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Getting the edge back

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After sweeping Wisconsin in '09, Minnesota has faltered

When Tubby Smith secured the commitment of Hopkins (Minnetonka, Minn.) standout Royce White -- who was also considering an offer from the Badgers -- it was a sign that the Gophers might finally be closing the Minnesota border to Bo Ryan. Then Smith's Gophers came into the Kohl Center Jan. 15, 2009 and got their first victory in Madison since 1994. Then they completed the season sweep over UW with a 51-46 win at home Mar. 4, 2009.

A series which had been dominated by Wisconsin -- the Badgers had won 13 of 14 meetings overall and five straight at Williams Arena -- took a sudden turn in favor of the Gophers. Perhaps more importantly, the recruiting war between Wisconsin and Minnesota also appeared to turn in favor of Tubby Smith's team.

Oh how things can change so quickly.

It's been nearly a year since Wisconsin and Minnesota last met, but since that time, White left the Gophers' program after never playing a game, junior college transfer Trevor Mbakwe was forced to sit out the season with legal issues, point guard Al Nolen was declared academically ineligible and Minnesota has lost seven of 10 games since starting the Big Ten season 2-0.

Suddenly things aren't looking up in Minneapolis anymore. In fact, since Minnesota topped the Badgers last March, the teams have gone in completely opposite directions. The Gophers, once the team with budding young stars ready to a make a deep tournament run in the near future, are now struggling to get to .500 in the Big Ten and hanging on to very dim NCAA Tournament hopes. The Badgers, once the team that endured a very  trying 2009 season and was picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten this season, are now in the midst of an intense conference title race with hopes for a No. 2 or No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed.

UW appears to have the edge in recruiting again too -- or at least never actually gave it up to Tubby Smith. The comparisons between White and UW freshman forward Mike Bruesewitz will always be there. White narrowly beat out Bruesewitz to earn Minnesota Mr. Basketball honors last season and some Badger fans were worried that UW "settled" for The Bruiser after failing to get White.

It's pretty obvious now who ended up with the better recruit. White might still be the better talent, but at least Bruesewitz is on a team and proving that he will be a very valuable asset to the Badgers throughout his college career.

Still, tonight's game at Williams Arena will not be an easy one for the Badgers. Despite Pomeroy giving the Badgers a 65 percent chance of winning tonight, the Gophers are actually a one-point favorite.

UW forward Jon Leuer will likely play, but it is uncertain whether or not he will start and how many minutes he will actually get.

Keys to the Game

  • Get Leuer involved early. Assuming he will play, UW needs to get back to the kind of play it will use with Leuer in the lineup the rest of the season. That means the offense needs to run through Leuer in the post. It will get him going offensively and give the guards better looks from the outside. It should also allow the guards to drive, which has proven to be effective all season long.
  • Outplay Minnesota's big men. Tubby Smith indicated Wednesday that he might start 6-10 sophomore forward Colton Iverson with 6-11 sophomore Ralph Sampson to give the Gophers a more physical presence. It might be a direct response to the return of Leuer or it might just be because Smith saw what a tall Illini team did to UW last week. Either way, Wisconsin has to play better defense on the big men and work hard on the glass.
  • Guard the perimeter. Minnesota has three players who are shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc, including the conference's best three-point shooter, Blake Hoffarber (49 percent). Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph can also get you from deep. This game could be decided between Hoffarber and Jason Bohannon.

Prediction

Wisconsin 59, Minnesota 56