A 115-year-old border battle resumes this weekend in Madison, as the league-leading Wisconsin Badgers welcome the Minnesota Golden Gophers for the first of two meetings over the next two weeks.
The last time these two teams met, Wisconsin was taking out all of its frustrations from an end of season loss to Nebraska by beating down Minnesota, 83-57, in last year's Big Ten tournament. Minus Ben Brust and Austin Hollins, most of the principle players are back on both sides, which kind of explains their relative standing in the conference at this juncture.
For Minnesota (16-11, 5-9 Big Ten), Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu and Mo Walker have all had nice performances against the Badgers (24-2, 12-1), but never at the same time. A few fresh faces have enabled Richard Pitino to field one of the faster-paced squads in the land, posing an interesting challenge for a Wisconsin team that is demanding heavy minutes from its starting five since Traevon Jackson got injured.
B5Q: It was brought to our attention that MAURICE WALKER is leading the Big Ten in steals during conference play. First of all ... wuh? Are these the kind of steals where the opponent throws a bad pass right into your arms or is Walker sneaky good at deflecting passes in the post?
UStreet (The Daily Gopher): Bit of both, plus Walker has done a good job at swiping errant dribbles in the post. Perhaps as a metaphor for the season, Walker has four times in the last three games stolen a ball in the post and then promptly thrown it back to the opposition via a lazy outlet pass.
B5Q: Secondly, it's not just Walker either, as the Gophers rank second in the country in steal percentage (14.8% of possessions) and third in overall turnover rate defensively. Deandre Mathieu, Carlos Morris and freshman guard Nate Mason rank 1-2-3 in steals in the league in steals overall. I am having nightmarish flashbacks to those Damien Johnson/Al Nolen teams. Should Wisconsin fans expect a '40 minutes of hell'-style defense or more strategic pressure?
TDG: If the Gophers actually had a 40 minutes of Hell press they'd have won a lot more games. I think you should expect to see some form of full court pressure after every made basket, but the pressure is going to be more strategic than all consuming. Minnesota gets a decent number of steals off the other team making mistakes. For example, opposing point guards will try and split two Gopher defenders but in the process forget to protect the ball. Minnesota has a very effective press against teams with spotty handles, but VCU, Louisville, or 90s Arkansas they are not.
B5Q: Despite all the pressure, the Gophers have surrendered 33 treys (!!) in the last two losses. Rather than ask you about Minnesota defending the suddenly chilly UW shooters, let's flip it. If the Badgers try to lock down on Andre Hollins (42.4% on threes) with Josh Gasser, who is the secondary shooter who has to come up big for Minnesota?
TDG: I wish there was an actual answer to this question. The Gophers have yet to develop a consistent second option. From behind the arc, it's either Nate Mason or Joey King. King will take a lot of threes as the trail option in the secondary break. Mason has the ability to shoot off the dribble and will shoot the ball late in the clock if nothing has materialized offensively.
B5Q: Looking at the numbers, it seems like rebounding and getting to the free throw line are the two other big weaknesses for Minnesota. Did any of these areas cost the Gophers in those close losses to start Big Ten play?
I wrote up a hypothetical two weeks ago (shameless plug) about what would happen if the Gophers always shot at least the league average from the line. Four more wins materialize.
While free throw shooting is not going to be the sole difference in a game, the larger problem is that the Gophers do not capitalize on opportunities on offense. It's not just that they do not make free throws. Minnesota has a problem getting to the line. Couple that with an inability to corral long rebounds, and that's why the team is four wins below their expected Pythagorean ranking.
B5Q: The Gophers need to win out to even get into the NCAA bubble conversation, which would mean two wins over Wisconsin and a pretty hot streak heading into the B1G tourney. What is Minnesota playing for at this point -- a minuscule chance at the Big Dance or simply ruining Wisconsin's season?
B5Q: Going forward, Pitino is losing his starting backcourt (including one of the school's most prolific scorers in Hollins) and two solid big men. Who is the future of Gopher hoops? Is it Mason or a kid not even on campus yet?
TDG: Nate Mason is the starting PG on next year's team. Charles Buggs and Joey King will continue to be contributors. The Gophers bring in two good guard recruits in Kevin Dorsey and Jarvis Johnson who will hopefully be able to contribute, and Jonathan Nwankwo a center prospect who will likely be a bench guy. Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou have been thrown in as spot contributors during this season, and will be expected have a bigger role next year.
B5Q: If I recall, one of Tubby Smith's biggest gripes with the university annually was lackluster basketball facilities. Has Pitino spoken publicly about getting more buy-in from the powers that be? Have there been any recent upgrades that have already minimized the issue?
TDG: Minimized no, but it's become more of a non-issue because of future building plans. Minnesota has completed an athletics master plan and is currently in the fundraising stages. Depending on the building, the university is looking to break ground within the next two years. Pitino converted an unused gym space into a practice facility, something that Tubby could have done the entire time he was at Minnesota but decided against.
Thanks to the gang from @TheDailyGopher, especially @UStreetTDG, for helping us out -- and keeping things civil at that. Let's see if Wisconsin and Minnesota can follow suit. Tip is set for the early ESPN slot on Saturday, 11 a.m. from the Kohl Center.
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