JF

Golden Gophers vs. Wisconsin Badgers

6:00 pm (CST) at Kohl Center (Madison, WI)

TV: ESPN

Liveblog Starting at 5:45

Finally, a chance for some answers. After seemingly endless weeks of mediocre basketball against bad teams, the Gophers take on the #24 Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten opener for both teams. By about 8pm central time on Tuesday night, we will know just how good the Gophers are.

While a win would be a great way to start the season and signal to the Big Ten that the Gophers may very well be the second best team in the conference, the right kind of loss would be acceptable. I’m not big on moral victories. Wins are always better than losses, but not every loss means the same thing. The Gophers have been lax in the fundamentals, struggled defensively, and been lacking in effort. Minnesota might not win even if they cut down on bad turnovers, play better perimeter defense, and find that inner fire that burned so brightly during the magical weekend in Puerto Rico. They are playing the Badgers in Madison after all, and after the Miracle in Madison, some Karmic payback is eventually in order. So if the Gophers play well but Wisconsin still finds a way to win, try to keep your heads up.

Speaking of perspective, Gopher fans would be well-advised to focus on more than the final scores during the first few weeks of the Big Ten season. The U has a brutal start to the Big Ten season opening on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan State, a brief home respite against Indiana, and then off to Ohio State who looks like they could go undefeated through the regular season. The Gophers could go 1-3 over the next four games, and still have a good chance for a top 3 Big Ten finish. Conference play isn’t quite a marathon (maybe a 10k?) and it is certainly not a sprint. The race starts Tuesday.

The Badgers enter Tuesday’s game ranked #24 in the country. They have earned that ranking by beating up on bad competition, squeaking by Marquette, and losing twice to teams that are a decent. Their best win was over the Golden Eagles by 5. Their only other real win of consequence was over Boston College by 10.  Their losses were to UNLV and Notre Dame, both away from the Kohl Center.

If algorithms and computers were responsible for the college basketball rankings that people actually pay attention to, the Badgers would be ranked much, much higher. Bo Ryan Badger slow ball, and its poor aesthetic value likely plays a role in the relatively low rating. It isn’t fun to watch the Badgers play basketball. It is even less fun to play against them. Wisconsin ranks second to last in the average pace of their games at only 60 possessions per game.  The national average is nearly 68 possessions per game. The Gophers play “faster” than any other Big Ten team at nearly 70 possessions per game. Dictating the pace will be crucial to both teams. The Gophers will want to get out and run and force quick shots by the Badgers. Wisconsin will want force the Gophers to score out of their half court offense while forcing the Gophers to play defense for the full 35 seconds. We have seen plenty of lapses in concentration by the Gophers on the defensive end, and Wisconsin can’t wait to lull them to sleep.

Playing slowly has allowed the Badgers to to play carefully. With a strategy that is predicated on patience, Wisconsin doesn’t force bad shots or bad passes. If a player is unsure of whether to make a pass to a potentially open player or attempt a possibly open shot, they’ll swing the ball around the perimeter until they know they will be passing to an open team-mate or taking a quality shot. This had led to one of the more efficient offenses in the country. Wisconsin averages 1.16 points per possession, good for 11th in the country. They are a good but not great shooting team, making 38.2% of two pointers and  50.5 % of two pointers. But they will kill you with fundamentals. They have committed the third fewest turnovers in the country, are the 13th best offensive rebounding team in the country, and are the sixth best free-throw shooting team in the country. Those offensive rebounds take the ball out of their opponents hands, and can create some excruciatingly long possessions. The excellent free-throw shooting is negated somewhat by Wisconsin’s inability to get to the free throw line. Teams that don’t force things offensively also don’t force their way to the free-throw line.

Wisconsin’s defense isn’t as good as their offense, ranking 31st in the country allowing .899 points per possession. They are actually a very similar team to the Gophers, with excellent 2 point and below average 3 point defense. They also block a lot of shots while managing to keep opponents off the free-throw line, just like the Gophers. The big difference is that the Gophers force a lot more turnovers, particularly by stealing the ball, while the Badgers rank 319th in the country in forcing steals. The Badgers won’t be diving into passing lanes, so the Gophers will have some opportunities to get the ball inside.

As a team the Badgers have excellent statistics, but they are really a two man team. Those two players, both from Minnesota, have a very real chance to both be All Big Ten players this season. John Leuer is averaging almost 20 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He can fill it up from anywhere, making 50% of his three-pointers and 52% of his two pointers. He already has 30 three-pointers this season. His previous career high was 18 three-pointers. He has also improved his interior defense with 1.8 blocks per game. The good news for the Gophers is that they have plenty of players to throw at him on the defensive end. Rodney Williams is quicker and a better leaper, and should be able to handle Leuer when he inevitably drifts out to the perimeter. Down low, Sampson and Iverson should be able to hold their own. If the Gophers can keep the right player on Leuer at the right time, they should be able to keep him under check. Things get considerably more frightening if the Gophers get caught on switches. Williams can’t handle Leuer down low, and the Gopher big men will look silly trying to stick with him away from the basket.

Jordan Taylor is the other traitor the Gophers need to watch out for. He is second on the team with 15.4 points and better than 4 rebounds and assists per game. He has made 41% of his three-pointers, and is the team leader with 49 free-throw attempts. His success against the Gophers should be dependent on Al Nolen’s feet. Last year he was held to 5 points and 1-8 shooting. He will likely play better than that, but Nolen has the quickness and size to keep Taylor off his game. Taylor is reminiscent of Trevon Hughes in both size and style of play, and Hughes also struggled against the Gophers.

Wisconsin is only ranked 24th in the nation because after Taylor and Leuer, two of the best players in the Big Ten, they don’t have much else. Keaton Nankivil plays like Leuer, but not as well. The 6’8” forward averages 7.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game and can knock down the outside shot, but isn’t a major part of the action on either end of the floor. John Gasser players more than any freshman in the conference, but has been a horrid outside shooter (6-29) and is averaging 6.7 points per game. Mike Bruesewitz has played much better than last year, but is still a role player.

All the Gophers need to do (which won’t be easy at all) is to contain Taylor and Leuer. If they turn those two great players into mere good players for one game, the Gophers are the better team.

There isn’t any need to hype this match-up. Two ranked teams, two huge-rivals, and the kick off of conference play should be enough to get the hearts of even the most casual of fans racing. This is the big one, and I can’t wait.

Who to watch for the Gophers:

Al Nolen looked rusty against South Dakota State in the first half, but swooped in just in time to turn the tide the Gophers’ way in the second half. He will have his hands full chasing Jordan Taylor around for 35 seconds at a time. He will also be responsible for maintaining the team’s composure in the most hostile environment of the season so far.

What to watch for the Gophers:

How can they make the Badger offense uncomfortable? Look for a different defense nearly every time down the floor. We also might finally see the press, which would at the very least give Wisconsin a little less time to run the offense and force a mistake or two.

Who to watch for the Badgers:

John Leuer presents the biggest match-up problem the Gophers will face all year, and may be the most versatile player in the Big Ten.

What to watch for the Badgers:

Who is number three? Wisconsin has their big two, but they will need someone to step at some point to be as good as their statistics suggest that they are.