Caleb King’s (@calebking_2) Preview: The Wisconsin Badgers travel to Minneapolis, MN today to take on the rival Minnesota Golden Gophers for a game slated to start at 3:30pm at the historic venue, “The Barn” at Williams Arena. This will be the first border battle of the season between the Badgers and the Gophers.
The Gophers come into the game unranked with a record of 15-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play. In conference they defeated Purdue, Northwestern and Ohio State before falling to Michigan State twice and most recently to Penn State. The Gophers most impressive win this season is by far their road win at Purdue. As I’ve mentioned before, Purdue was my pick to go undefeated at home this season in the Big Ten and the Gophers put an end to that prediction quickly.
This Golden Gophers team isn’t anything like what the Big Ten saw last year. Last season the Gophers struggled consistently on their way to winning eight games. This season they’re already at 15 and have knocked off a top-25 opponent on the road. This Gophers team is hungry and looking to prove themselves. Coach Richard Pitino’s team is led by sharp shooting guard Nate Mason (13.9ppg, 5.4apg) who scores a majority of the Gophers points and is involved in some way by facilitating for his teammates to put the ball in the basket. The Gophers are also led by freshman Amir Coffey (11.9ppg), sophomore Dupree McBrayer (11.7ppg), and sophomore, big man Jordan Murphy (10.2ppg, 8.1rpg).
The Gophers haven’t been too battled tested yet this season. Their non-conference schedule didn’t feature a team ranked near the top-25. But according to Badgers assistant Joe Krabbenhoft, this Gophers team is much different. “It’s a completely different (Minnesota) team now – night and day. The roster is different in a lot of ways and the identity of the team has focused on the defensive end.” The Gophers lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense and blocked shots, which was clutch in their win against Purdue. Krabbenhoft went on to say “The guys they did have returning from last year learned from what they went through and decided that was not the way they wanted it to go and they’re playing like a team that clearly has their eyes on the NCAA Tournament. We know that.”
The key addition for the Gophers this season is ‘Mr. Basketball’ from a year ago in the state of Minnesota, Amir Coffey. He has changed their team and their style of play, and really motivated his team to be gritty and tough especially on the defensive side of the ball. His passion has lifted this Gophers team, even their experienced leaders of the past.
Now let’s get to our Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers come into today’s contest ranked number 17 in the nation with a record of 15-3 overall and 4-1 in conference play. The Badgers have defeated Rutgers, Indiana, Ohio State and most recently Michigan, and fell at Purdue earlier in the season. The Badgers most impressive win this year has come on the road at Indiana where they won 75-68. The last meeting between the Badgers and the Gophers was last season at Williams Arena where the Badgers dominated the Gophers for a majority of the game and walked away victorious by the score of 62-49. But as mentioned before, this game has all the potential to be a better battle than a year ago, but the Badgers are ready for it.
The Badgers are led by senior guard Bronson Koenig (14.5ppg) who is coming off of a huge game against Michigan where he went on a 10-0 run of his own in the second half to pull the Badgers ahead and never look back. The Badgers are also led by post-powers and Wooden Award Watch-List candidates Ethan Happ (12.8ppg, 9.1rpg, 1.9spg, 2.8apg) and Nigel Hayes (13.6ppg, 5.4rpg, 3.2apg).
Some keys for the Badgers for success is to impose their defensive pressure and pace on the Gophers to not allow them to get into a rhythm. Nate Mason is a very aggressive guard that loves to take his guy outside but will drive and hit a floater on you all day long if you’re too aggressive coming out. Close-outs and quick feet will be even more crucial than normal against a skilled guard like Mason. Along with being able to keep Mason at bay, it will be important for the Badgers to control the glass and the inside match-ups. As I mentioned before, the Gophers lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense and blocked shots.
This brings me to my “Player-To-Watch” a little early, but it’s a huge part of today’s game. My “Player-To-Watch” today is Ethan Happ. The Gophers defense in the post has proved to be their strength this season and it was successful against Purdue, a game for the Badgers where they weren’t successful in that area. It’s no particular match-up between Happ and a particular big man for the Gophers, but really Happ against all their bigs down low. There’s no doubt that Ethan Happ is skilled and has a lot in his arsenal, but when Coach Krabbenhoft was asked about the match-ups down low for Ethan he had these things to say: “Keep it simple. He’s able to do so many advanced moves a lot of guys his age don’t know how to do in a post drill, let alone out on a court. But sometimes you’ve just got to keep it even more simple when you’re facing that much size. You have to trust your instincts and what you’ve worked on – maybe a simple right-handed hook – and not get fancy with it. Also you have to be persistent and not back down if you get your shot blocked or if you don’t get a call to go your way. You’ve just got to stay at ‘em.”
It’s no secret to Badgers fans that a lot of our success comes when Ethan Happ is on the floor and getting the ball in the post. Last game against Michigan we struggled in the second half while Happ sat with his three fouls. When Happ returned to the game he and Koenig took over and pushed the Badgers to a come-from-behind victory late in the second half. Ethan will need to stay out of foul trouble today and just be persistent. He knows what he can do, and he’s going to give an incredible effort just as he always does.
Another factor will be how our outside game plays today. If Koenig and company are able to prove to be threats early on from the 3-point line it will stretch the Gopher defense to give Happ and company more room to work down low, and if they double down? Kick it out and hit a more-than-ready Koenig or Showalter or Trice to splash home a triple and make the Gophers respect them.
Badgers vs Gophers games are not taken lightly in either of the two states. So many bets are placed between diehard supporters, so much tradition is shared between the two schools in the historic rivalry, and you can bet that this game will be all of that and more.Saturday’s game is expected to be a sellout, the first in two seasons for the Gophers dating back to the 2015 Wisconsin game.
“It’s a great college basketball environment and there’s a lot of history there,” said Krabbenhoft, “the one thing about the Barn, you usually saw a lot of red which was neat and I hope we’ll see that again on Saturday.”
King’s Prediction: BADGERS 76 Minnesota 64 (King is 11-3 on the season)
As always, #OnWisconsin
Ben Thorson’s (@benjthorson) Prediction: The top two defensives in the Big Ten square off at ‘The Barn’ this afternoon. According to Kenpom‘s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Gophers enter today’s matchup as the fifth ranked defense in the country, allowing 89.7 points in 100 possessions; while the Badgers enter as the 17th ranked defense allowing 92.0 pts/100 possessions. I have been guilty of telling colleagues that I feel that Minnesota can split with the Badgers this season, but I am going against my word on this one. The Gophers are led by Nate Mason and freshman Amir Coffey, both individuals are responsible for the turn-around season in Minnesota; but neither has played against a defense as disciplined as the Badgers this season.
I feel that the Badgers find ways to be more effective offensively; as I expect Nigel Hayes to assert himself more on the offensive side of the floor. This aggressiveness paired with the high experience level of Wisconsin’s seniors winning conference road games will help the Badger prevail in Minneapolis.
BADGERS 68 Minnesota 61 (Thorson is 16-2 on the season)