GAME NOTES: Among the nationally-ranked for the first time in nearly three months, the 20th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers will play a pivotal Big Ten Conference game on Thursday night against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Wisconsin won three games last week, the last two coming in overtime, and the most recent of which in upset fashion versus No. 3 Michigan (65-62). As a result, the Badgers now sit at 17-7 overall and 8-3 in conference, the latter of which has the team in third place in the Big Ten, not far off the pace set by frontrunners Indiana (10-2) and Michigan State (10-2). Despite its impressive overall record, UW is just 3-4 in true road games.
Minnesota had spent a considerable amount of time among the nationally-ranked, but losses in two straight and six of their last eight games has the team on the outside looking in this week. The Gophers fell to visiting Illinois last Sunday, 57-53, and it was only their second setback in 14 home games this season.
These same two teams met in Madison on Jan. 26, and the Badgers prevailed in a 45-44 final to give them four straight wins over the Golden Gophers. Despite its recent struggles, Minnesota owns a 94-88 lead in the all-time series.
Wisconsin is known much more for its efforts at the defensive end of the court, the team yielding a mere 56.5 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of 40.0 percent overall, which includes a .304 showing from 3-point range. The Badgers own favorable margins in both rebounding (+4.4) and turnovers (+2.5), and they crank out 67.4 ppg behind 42.7 percent efficiency from the field and 34.7 percent from long distance, all of which have the team ranked in the middle of the Big Ten pack. Jared Berggren heads the club with 11.9 ppg, and he grabs 6.8 rpg for good measure, which is almost as many as Ryan Evans (7.7 rpg) pulls down on a nightly basis. Ben Brust (11.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Evans (10.8 ppg) are the club's only other double-digit scorers, and it was Brust who played the role of hero in the recent win over Michigan after he hit a 3- pointer at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. In all, Brust nailed four treys to finish with 14 points, Berggren had 13, Sam Dekker tallied 12 off the bench and Evans chipped in 11 while grabbing a game-high nine rebounds. In all, the Badgers were successful on 10 3-point attempts while limiting the Wolverines to just 1-of-2 at the free-throw line.
Despite its favorable record, Minnesota is a middle-of-the-pack club in the Big Ten in terms of both scoring offense (71.4 ppg) and scoring defense (61.2 ppg). The team does a tremendous job coming up with loose balls, ranking second in the conference in rebounding margin (+9.3), and it leads the league in blocked shots (145, 6.0 bpg). Second-place ratings apply in both assists (15.5 apg) and steals (8.6 spg). Andre Hollins paces the club with 13.8 ppg, and he has a team-high 85 assists as well. Rodney Williams is next with 11.9 ppg, while Austin Hollins rounds out the double-digit scorers with 11.2 ppg. Two others net 9.7 (Joe Coleman) and 9.6 ppg (Trevor Mbakwe), respectively, with the latter leading the club in both rebounding (8.8 rpg) and blocks (41). Austin Hollins scored 16 points and Mbakwe tallied 13 points and 10 rebounds, but UM dropped a four-point decision at home to Illinois last weekend. The Gophers shot just 38 percent from the field, missing 12 of their 17 3-point tries along the way, while the Fighting Illini made good on just 36.7 percent of their total shots, but were 11-of-23 from beyond the arc. Minnesota easily won the rebounding battle (39-26), but committed nearly twice as many turnovers (13-7).
Expect these two long-time rivals to trade blows throughout, and while the Gophers have been tough to beat at home, the Badgers don't have plans to exit the national rankings just yet.