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

Wisconsin was embarrassed during its Jan. 22 trip to the Twin Cities. Can the Badgers return the favor Thursday when the Gophers come to town?

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin now boasts a two-game winning streak (longest in the Big Ten!) and more confidence fresh off a victory over No. 9 Michigan State. Minnesota has only won one game out of the last four, but rivalry games are rarely easy. In addition, this game has major implications in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin currently sits fourth and Minnesota is tied for sixth. Only 1.5 games separate fourth-place from seventh.

After getting embarrassed in the first meeting in Minnesota, Wisconsin will need to capitalize on the revenge factor and playing at home. A victory Thursday will go a long way in preparing for daunting back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Iowa in the next two games. Here’s how the Badgers can keep the good times rolling against their dreaded rivals to the west.

Stay out of foul trouble

In the first meeting with Minnesota, Frank Kaminsky saw just under three minutes of action in the first half due to a couple of quick fouls. Enter Maurice Walker’s career night. In Kaminsky's absence, Walker ran through pretty much every big man on the Badger roster on his way to 18 points. Along with Elliott Eliason, the Gophers have a pretty formidable front line that will absolutely take advantage if Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes can’t stay on the floor.

Kaminsky is averaging nearly four fouls a game over the last five contests, and Hayes has had at least four fouls in three of those games. Hayes in particular has come on lately as one of the most consistent scoring options. He has averaged 15 points and 10(!) free throw attempts in his last three games.

Whereas Hayes' influence on offense continues to grow, Kaminsky has struggled. He has only topped double-digits in points twice since the first time the Badgers and Gophers played. But Kaminsky is needed most on the defensive end, where he brings some added length on the interior. He needs to find a way to challenge shots without fouling.

The foul battle for both Kaminsky and Hayes seems to stem from the team’s overall defensive struggle in Big Ten play. Getting beat off the dribble and being late on weak-side help all led to players out of position and fouling as a last resort. Improved communication as a team should help decrease late-ditch effort scenarios that Kaminsky and Hayes often find themselves in.

Stop dribble penetration

When you allow 81 points in the first meeting, you can bet your bottom dollar two of the three keys to the next game will be defense-oriented. Minnesota scored 46 points in the paint when the two teams played in Minneapolis. Walker’s exploits have already been noted, but point guard Deandre Mathieu was equally responsible for dismantling the Badgers' defense. Mathieu had 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and aside from a couple of three-point makes, nearly all his attempts were around the rim after slicing past a Badger defender.

The Badgers have had trouble staying in front of quick, shifty guards all season. UWGB’s Keifer Sykes (32 points) and Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell (25) both scorched Wisconsin primarily with dribble drive attacks at the rim. Dribble penetration has been an issue for the Badgers all season and with the new rules preventing contact by defenders, it is not all that surprising. What is surprising is the usually solid help defense by Bo Ryan’s teams has been shaky at best and non-existent at worse.

The good news? Improvement is on the way. Wisconsin held both Illinois and Michigan State to 40 percent shooting, both wins. A far cry from the 59 percent allowed in the first matchup with Minnesota.

Run the offense inside-out

At one point this season, UW's offensive versatility was such that everyone on the court was a legitimate three-point threat. Not so much lately. Wisconsin has been in a team-wide shooting slump from beyond the arc in the past six games. For those souls brave enough to proceed, the numbers are below:

Ben Brust 10-40 .250
Josh Gasser 9-22 .409
Sam Dekker 9-28 .321
Traevon Jackson 6-13 .462
Frank Kaminsky 2-11 .182
Bronson Koenig 3-11 .273
TEAM 39-125 .312

Only Gasser and Jackson are shooting a good percentage. Dekker has caught fire lately -- he's shooting 7-of-13 from beyond the arc in the last two wins -- but was downright awful in the three games prior. Everyone else is struggling.

The emergence of Hayes should be evidence enough to warrant more post touches, both for Hayes and Kaminsky. Establishing both big men down low should open up the court and allow Brust, Dekker and company open shooting and driving lanes. There’s something to be said gaining confidence with higher-percentage shots first, then working to the three-point shots as they come later on.

Collectively, the Badgers' confidence has to come around eventually. They cannot continue to shoot below career average percentages for the rest of the season, right? Right?!?

Prediction: With a trip to Michigan on the horizon Sunday, the Badgers need this one to keep pace in the top four of the conference standings. Continuing where the men’s hockey team left off, Wisconsin pushes the streak to three straight sports victories over the Gophers. Wisconsin 70, Minnesota 62.