The enemy.

Golden Gophers 17-7 (5-6) vs. Wisconsin 18-6 (7-4)

7:00 PM CST at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, MN

TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1500 AM

On Thursday night the Gophers and Badgers renew their always heated rivalry, with a lot on the line. The Golden Gophers are one win away from reaching .500 in the Big Ten and a clear path to the NCAA tournament. With a win, the Badgers can climb right back into the thick of the Big Ten race, and all but lock up an NCAA tournament bid themselves. Throw in national television coverage, the very deserved hatred of Bo Ryan, and the first time in two seasons that the teams play each other twice, and needless to say, this is a big one.

Minnesota’s turnaround is quite remarkable. They hit rock bottom right around the time Purdue knocked down their 10th three-pointer of the first half. They couldn’t miss, and it didn’t help that the Gophers couldn’t defend either. Gopher fans went through the first three stages of grief during the home loss to Iowa, reached depression during the first half against Purdue, and I at least reached acceptance walking back to the car after the game. It was going to be another one of those years. It isn’t one of those years any more.

There are many reasons why the Gophers have been able to go 5-4 in the Big Ten against teams that aren’t Iowa, and why they have won five of their last seven games.  They weren’t exactly playing horribly their first four games. They needed some confidence which they got by beating Indiana. Joe Coleman’s insertion into the starting line-up obviously provided a much needed spark. Most importantly, they finally resolved their dysfunctional relationship with the three-point line.

Last year’s edition of the Golden Gophers could have thrived 26 years ago, before the three-point fundamentally changed the college game forever. They were big, could occasionally score near the basket, and didn’t allow anyone to score near the basket.  They also couldn’t shoot and gave up three-pointers by the truck load. Last year the Gophers’ opponents scored 38.3% of their points behind the three-point line – the second most in the country, and scored only 21.3% of their points from inside the three-point line – 306th in the country.

Even taking into account the first four games of the Big Ten season which saw poor shooting and defending that was on par with last year, the Gophers rank fourth in both three-point shooting and three-point defending. Their defense in both seasons ranks in the middle of the Big Ten, but opposing offenses can no longer count on simply shooting as many three-points until a few finally go in. They now need to actually work to score against the Gophers, take chances by passing the ball inside and dribbling. Last season the Gophers ranked 9th in the Big Ten in forcing turnovers. That has improved to sixth this season. On a shooting percentage basis the three-point defending wasn’t as bad as you remembered it. The three-point shooting by the Gophers was worse than you probably remembered.

In Big Ten play Minnesota made only 29.6% of their three-pointers, 11th in the Big Ten, and attempted only 26% of their field goals from three-point range. The Gophers essentially ignored the existence of the three-point line, even though they had the best Gopher shooter in a generation, Blake Hoffarber.  This season the Gophers still score a majority of their points from the inside, but there is now some semblance of balance. They have made 36.4% of their three-point attempts, and 30% of their shot attempts are now from three-point range. The Gophers can actually make a jump shot now, and defenses can’t simply indefinitely sag. There is actually something to defend.

I’ve brought this up not just to marvel at what is a miraculous if not self-evidently sustainable turnaround, but to wonder if the Gophers’ three-point struggles were an airborne contagion which has blown east across the St. Croix River. Wisconsin, at least on offense, is even more dysfunctional than the Gophers were last season.

Bo Ryan’s teams play notoriously slow, and because of that are often criticized for allegedly bad offenses because they will often score 50 or so points per game. In reality, Badgers offenses are traditionally among the most efficient in the country, ranking in the top 50 every season since 2003. They were boring but deadly. This season, everyone claiming that the Badgers play bad offense have stumbled upon the truth. Bad shooting is the heart of the problem. They rank 10th in both two point shooting and three-point shooting, and despite that horrid three-point shooting, only making 30.4% in Big Ten play, they take an inexplicable 41.7% of their field goal attempts from the outside. Remember how last year it seemed like Gopher opponents were shooting everything from behind the three-point line? The Badgers are approaching that level of three-point dependence. Luckily for them, they have maintained traditional Bo Ryan offensive qualities of limiting turnovers and accurate free-throw shooting. But if you can’t put the ball in the basket, nothing else matters.

Defensively, the Badgers are excellent, and it their defense that is winning their games. Despite forcing the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten, they have the third best defense in conference play behind league best three-point defending and second best two-point shot defending. Wisconsin’s defense wears teams out, and their offense lulls them to sleep. Whatever works I suppose.

The Badgers have the better conference record and may be favored to win the game. They’ll undoubtedly finish the season with a better conference record, and will be considered the better team by pundits everywhere. However, like Minnesota’s match-up with Indiana, there are reasons for optimism for Gopher fans. The first obviously is Wisconsin’s bad shooting. I’m not entirely sold on the sustainability of the Gophers perimeter defending, but bad shooting teams help make it possible, and Wisconsin is a bad shooting team.  The Gophers won’t necessarily get burned by their defensive lapses. On the other side of the court, the Badgers aren’t very likely to force many Gophers offensive lapses. The Gophers are the fifth best shooting team in the Big Ten, and get to the free-throw line the fourth most in the conference, but their offense overall is only 8th in the conference. They commit far too many turnovers though, ranking 10th in protecting the basketball, which is quite detrimental to an otherwise efficient enough offense.

The Gophers can beat the Badgers if they defend the three and take care of the ball. Doing that is obviously easier said than done, and rivalry games are always interesting. These games are usually close, and there is no reason why Thursday night’s game won’t be too.