After two "unexpected" losses, Wisconsin suddenly finds itself two-and-a-half games back of the Big Ten leaders, having flipped from league favorites to possible also-rans in the conference almost overnight. If the Badgers (16-2, 3-2 Big Ten) can bring even half of the urgency to the defensive end as I am feeling as a fan, in my jittery pregame state of mind, then there is still hope however.
Minnesota (14-5, 3-3) has a slightly new look for this round of the border battle. Yes, 18th-year senior Trevor Mbakwe finally moved on, but the Hollins boys are still around and this team has plenty of experience. Under new head coach Richard Pitino, the Gophers will employ a bit more full-court pressure, and have added a few dangerous pieces to aid in the perimeter shooting, a nice compliment to the returning starters.
We joined forces with Chris, aka GoUApher, from the superb Minnesota blog The Daily Gopher to bring you this week's Q&A preview.
B5Q: Nearly 20 games into the season, does Minnesota look like the Richard Pitino-coached team you were promised during the off-season? What's the biggest difference between Little Richard and Tubby Smith, philosophy-wise?
The Daily Gopher (Chris): I think the answer you'll get to that will vary based on the Gopher fan you talk to. I suppose there might be some Gopher fans out there who thought we were going to see 40 minutes of hell every night this year. Those folks would probably be disappointed right now. But I think most folks were excited to see a more exciting brand of basketball where the team gets out and runs more and plays more pressure D, and on that front you have to be pretty pleased if you're a Gopher fan.For the biggest difference I'll keep it simple and high level rather than attempt a schematic breakdown. Tubby's teams played horribly stagnant offensive basketball with little movement more often than not. Pitino's teams would prefer to score off the fast break and never even get into a set, but once they do they don't stand around and stare each other like they used to. Also, their is evidence that Pitino can teach them how to execute a zone offense.
B5Q: If Ohio State was not reeling right now, Minnesota's 10-point victory over the Buckeyes last week would look a lot better. Since then, the Gophers suffered through an awful collapse versus Iowa, giving up 53 second-half points. What kind of momentum did the team get from the OSU win, and what went wrong after halftime in Iowa City?
TDG: There is nothing wrong with OSU. Everything is well.
/sees OSU-Nebraska score and burns it all to the ground
I don't know that momentum is going to be a huge thing with this Gopher team. By the rules of momentum, they probably should have come out horribly flat against OSU after the gut punch miss at Michigan State. Overall I think we're going to see this team play up and down throughout the season because they have the pieces to be pretty good but the execution is not there 100% of the time due to the new system and a lack of talent/depth that can get them into trouble some nights.
For that last point, please see Foul Trouble, Iowa Game. Foul trouble was not the only problem affecting the Gophers and the refs certainly didn't do anything to lose the game, but the number of players in foul trouble in the 2nd half (particularly Elliott Eliason, who picked up foul #3 immediately following halftime) hurt the Gophers, changed the feel of the game, and helped account for the final margin. The real problem was more fundamental though. The Gophers started turning the ball over too much and gave up far too many offensive rebounds and second-chance points. That's what lost them the game. Throw in Andre Hollins disappearing in the 2nd half after having a monster first half and things got uglier than they might have.
B5Q: Much like OSU, Wisconsin is riding a two-game skid as it makes its trip to the Twin Cities. Has any of the luster of this border battle worn off now that the Badgers are scuffling? What will the mood be like at the Barn for this game?
TDG: Is Bo Ryan still coaching in Madison?
/checks the Googles for confirmation...
I think Gopher fans will be sufficiently motivated.
Seriously though, I don't think the Badgers losing two in a row changes much. I expect that The Barn will be rocking because a Border Battle game is always something fans can get up for.
B5Q: Elliott Eliason has been one of the breakout stars in the Big Ten and become a real leader for Minnesota. The redshirt junior is averaging 8.7 rebounds and 2.6 block per game, both marks good for second in the league. On which end of the floor does Eliason make a bigger impact? Could you have predicted any of this success after watching him for a couple seasons?
TDG: He's making his presence felt the most on the defensive end of the floor, without question. Overall, EE has gotten away from picking up cheap fouls, which was a big step (I'm leaving the Iowa game aside because when the Iowa radio guys think EE is getting hosed it might not be all on him). More minutes has meant more opportunity and Eliason has taken advantage.
He's also shown increased confidence on the offense side of the ball, making more decisive moves in the post while continuing to be a quality passer for a big man. That offensive improvement and the reduction in fouls were things Gopher fans hoped for, but both have been pleasant surprises this season.
B5Q: Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins seem like they've been at Minnesota for about 5-6 years already. We know Dre can score, but has this duo progressed into all-around players as much as fans would like during their time there?
TDG: I think at this point folks are pretty happy with Dre. He still goes quiet at inopportune moments (see: 2nd Half, Iowa Game) but overall he's been a great leader for the Gophers and is still a guy the team relies on frequently. It feels a little like the move to SG and off the ball might be more of an adjustment than expected, though that's mostly us as fans searching for reasons why he still has stretches where he seems to have limited impact (versus simply being cold from the field).
Austin is a defensive presence like always and I think fans will always be happy with this part of this game. But he's continued to show inconsistency in his offensive play and that has been very frustrating to watch. Of the two, I think he's the one that Gopher fans wish could have gotten a little farther with his progression as a player. (Austin, that's your cue to make everyone thinking this look very foolish.)
B5Q: Beyond the Hollins boys, Minnesota is getting some good outside shooting from some new faces. Both 5'9" junior DeAndre Mathieu (JUCO) and senior Malik Smith (FIU) are transfers shooting over 40 percent from deep. What can you tell us about these two and how well do they complement the returnees in the backcourt.
TDG: Malik will pull the trigger from anywhere at any time. Sometimes that is good, sometimes that's bad. He has the skill to shoot the Gophers to victory or shoot them out of the game. I like to say he's kind of like Lawrence Westbrook in that regard, which should hopefully give Badger fans some context.
Mathieu is a sparkplug and along with Eliason, he's the biggest positive surprise of the season thus far. He's fearless driving to the hoop and is capable of distributing the ball when teams collapse. Unlike the last true Gopher PG (Al Nolen), Lil' Dre can finish around the hoop. Sometimes he gets a little wild or a little to ready to challenge a 7-footer, but overall I think he's been the most important addition to this team.
Great, another Westbrook ...
B5Q: Which matchup with Wisconsin do you think most favors Minnesota, whether it be individually or as a team? Which one are you most nervous about? Do you have a prediction for Wednesday's game?
TDG: Well, I like that KenPom has the Badgers ranked 234th in OReb%. Limiting second chance points will be huge given that, once again, Bo Ryan has sold another piece of his soul to Lucifer in exchange for an efficient offense. I'm also please too see UW ranked 301st in forcing turnovers according to KenPom.On the flip side, it would be nice if the Badgers were a little more careless with the basketball, as forcing TO's (while limiting their own) is one key way that the Gophers have found to win basketball games. It's certainly not a requirement, but if the Gophers are forcing UW to give up possessions without a shot I like their chances a lot better.
This time last week I would have predicted a loss. And that's still the most likely outcome. But if Minnesota can limit their mistakes and score relatively efficiently then I like their chances. I'll go full #HOMERSOTA and pick a two-point Gopher victory for no better reason than I want it to happen. Oh yea, that's some fine evidence based predicting right there.
I wish I was as bold as Chris, but I don't know what to expect right now. I'm just hoping to be able to get back on the #WinningIsFun train come Thursday morning. Speaking of Twitter, check out Chris @GoAUpher if you're feeling so inclined.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.
|Elliott Eliason, Jr.
|Sam Dekker, So.
|Oto Osenieks, Jr.
|Josh Gasser, Jr.
|Austin Hollins, Sr.
|Ben Brust, Sr.
|Andre Hollins, Jr.
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.
|DeAndre Mathieu, Jr.
KenPom win probability: 56% (70-68 W) 63 possessions
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