Saturday’s match-up between the Golden Gophers and the Wisconsin Badgers will be billed as rivalry weekend; reeling weekend might be more accurate. The Gophers have lost three straight games and the Badgers are coming off two losses in a row. Both teams had visions of a top four conference finish dancing in their head, and thanks to these early stumbles, it feels like that opportunity could be slipping away.
Perception matters, but so does reality. The reality is that both teams are about where they were predicted to be at this point in the Big Ten Season, even if the outcomes of individual games is confounding. The Gophers have one win that was unexpected, against Michigan State, to go along with the unexpected loss to Northwestern. The others games played out as projected. Similarly, the Badgers win at Indiana came completely out of nowhere, and the loss at home to Michigan State was a bit unexpected. The road loss at Iowa wasn’t funfor Badger fans, but it wasn’t mysterious either. Perception trumps reality though, and with ending a losing streak on the line, this feels like a much bigger game than it likely is.
With two teams facing slumps, statistics aren’t particularly relevant. Statistics can offer great insight into how two teams would perform against each other if both teams were playing how they normally play. Neither team is playing how they typically play. For instance, the Gophers are coming off their worst shooting performance of this season, despite shooting exceptionally well during the first five games of the season. The Badgers rarely commit turnovers and usually keep teams off the free-throw line. However, they have fouled too often and have been playing sloppier than usual.
The winning team on Saturday is ultimately the team that can get their head on straight again, the team that can remember how to win. The game is being played in Madison, so home court advantage should make things for them. The Gophers arguably are more in need of win. Desperation has a way of blocking out distractions and refocusing teams on achieving their goals. Desperation can also causes teams to panic, magnify mistakes, and expose the true nature of teams.
The Gophers do not need to win tomorrow to save their season. Even with a loss, there will be ample opportunity to finish the Big Ten season with 11-7 or a 10-8 record. They do need play well enough to convince themselves that they are capable of winning. The Gophers have a 15-4 record against the third toughest schedule in the country. They can beat good teams. Remember that they ran Michigan State out of the gym, and the Spartans haven’t lost since. The Spartans remember that game. The Gophers need to remember it too.