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Wisconsin vs. Minnesota preview: Border Battle rivalry heats up

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The Badgers hit the road and attempt to claim the Big Ten regular season title outright at the Barn. What are the key factors and matchups to watch Thursday?

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers travel to Williams Arena in Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in part two of their annual Border Battle series. With a win on Thursday night, the Badgers will claim the Big Ten regular season title outright, fending off Maryland, who they lost to last week.

The Badgers (26-3, 14-2 Big Ten) are headed across the border after an emotional Senior Day win over Michigan State. One of the best senior classes ever to step foot onto UW-Madison's campus played their last home game as proud Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky who scored 31 points on 3-of-4 three-point shooting, adding eight rebounds, three assists, three blocks, and two steals. I guess you can call that a complete performance! Nigel Hayes added 14 points as the Badgers rolled to a 68-61 win over the Spartans. Although the score suggests otherwise, the game was never in doubt.

Likewise, the Golden Gophers (17-12, 6-10) are coming off a victory over the Spartans as well. However, Minnesota beat Michigan State in clutch fashion, as the Gophers left East Lansing with a 96-90 overtime victory. Reserve Carlos Morris broke out in that game, scoring a career high 20 points on 4-of-5 shooting from behind the arc, including a long and-one three-pointer that tied the game with just seconds remaining in regulation. Joey King and Andre Hollins each added 17 points, while big man Maurice Walker went 5-of-7 from the field for 15 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.

X-Factors

Crowd noise

Volume will be an factor for each team, as Williams Arena (or as the locals and students call it, "The Barn") has been know to hold a raucous student section. That won't change Thursday night, especially with top 10-ranked and hated neighbor Wisconsin coming into town. If the Badgers can overcome the crowd and the loud noise that it produces, it could be rather smooth sailing for the experienced Bo Ryan-led team. With the loss to Maryland, the Badgers have failed to post a high-quality road win other than this season. Winning against Minnesota is no large feat, however it is hard to beat them when the game will be nationally televised, and when the underrated, young unit has the opportunity to knock off one of the top teams in the country.

Interior offense

We all know how the Badgers have some deadly three-point shooters, however Minnesota has some stingy perimeter defense, and getting points in the paint will be a huge factor in the Badger's overall offensive output on Thursday. With the solid guard play that the Gophers possess in Hollins, Nate Mason and DeAndre Mathieu, they force opposing offenses to go inside, which may not pose problems for Wisconsin. However, Maurice Walker played a very solid game last season at home against Frank Kaminsky, so it will be interesting to see how the senior big defends against No. 44 this time around. The Badgers have no shortage of solid interior offensive players, as Kaminsky, Hayes, and Dekker have all proven to be capable back to the basket scorers and have shown the ability to drive in the lane for easy buckets.

Matchups to Watch

Nigel Hayes vs. Joey King

I am not sure if Coach Richard Pitino plans to place King or Charles Buggs on Hayes, but King has proven to be the better interior defender, so it would be smart for the young head coach to place the 6-9, 235-pound forward on Hayes. Hayes and King present a similar game on each side of the court, which is what makes this matchup so interesting and will be fun to watch. Whoever wins the rebounding battle between these two forwards will significantly help their own squad, and especially if either of them could snag an offensive rebound or two. This is because the Kaminsky-Walker battle on the glass will likely end in each player racking up mostly defensive rebounds, so expect their matchup on the glass to be a draw. With that said, I think the Badgers sophomore will be able to outmuscle King on the glass, and beat him in the post on both ends of the court.

Badgers' backcourt defense vs. Andre Hollins

Wisconsin unexpectedly shut down the Golden Gophers' leading scorer, Andre Hollins, on February 21, a Badgers home win. Hollins only posted two points in the defeat, his worst scoring output of the entire season. If the Badgers can hold Hollins to below double digits again this time around, they will have an easy victory once again. Don't expect this to happen, however, as Minnesota has discovered some other scorers around their star senior guard. The offensive play of Joey King and Carlos Morris has opened up many shots for Hollins, who has scored over 20 points in four of the last five Minnesota games -- the lone exception coming in the loss at the Kohl Center.

Prediction

With the right to an outright regular season Big Ten title on the line, expect Bo Ryan and his veteran Wisconsin basketball squad to deliver a victory. Minnesota has a rather inexperienced group of players, and although they have many capable and up-and-coming scorers on their roster, they just don't have enough star power to keep up with the high-flying Badgers on either side of the court. Even with the Badger bench in quite an offensive slump, the play of Kaminsky, Dekker, and Hayes will key the Badgers to a swift victory, a special win on the road against hated border rival Minnesota.