The Golden Gophers saved their season with a gut-wrenching 66-60 win over the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday. A win over the Badgers on Thursday night would inch the Gophers closer to something exceedingly rare, a stress-free Selection Sunday.
Generally speaking, a 9-9 Big Ten record is enough to comfortably make the NCAA tournament. A Gophers’ win against the Badgers would give them a 6-6 record, and a tie for fourth in the Big Ten. With winnable home games left against Penn State and Illinois – the two worst teams in the Big Ten, and a winnable road game at Northwestern later this week, beating Bucky would open a clear path to the NCAA tournament. Beating Wisconsin would also give the Gophers a coveted road win over a top 10 RPI team. That type of win, and this point in the season, would essentially be two wins for the price of one, and would increase the chance that 8 conference wins would be enough to make the NCAA tournament, just like it was last season.
Even though the Minnesota handled Wisconsin rather comfortably at home does not mean that winning at the Kohl Center is easy. It never is. The Badgers were ill-prepared for Richard Pitino’s strategy change necessitated by the ankle injury of Andre Hollins. The Gophers had no choice but to force the ball inside, and it was clear that Bo Ryan had prepared his team only for a perimeter-oriented offensive attack. Mo Walker won’t be a surprise to the Badgers, and Wisconsin will likely prioritize keeping Minnesota from scoring close to the basket.
In the border battle in January, the Gophers attempted only seven three-pointers, and made four of them. This is rather stunning considering that 36% of Minnesota’s field goal attempts come from behind the three-point line. The Gophers didn’t shoot many three’s because they didn’t need to. Thanks to poor execution against the pick and roll, the Badger defense was shredded on the inside, where the Gophers made 59% of their two point attempts. The Gophers probably won’t shoot that well again, because they likely won’t get shots that open again.
As always, the game will likely be decided by Minnesota’s defense. The Gopher defense, despite some improvement in the last two games, is still the worst in the Big Ten. They still don’t get enough defensive rebounds and they still foul too often. Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten at getting to the free-throw line, especially at home, but are 11th in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding. The Gophers have played other teams who are bad on the offensive boards, and made them look a lot like last year’s Gophers.
The Gophers know by now where their shortcomings are on the defensive end. However, knowledge is not enough. If they can finally get their hands on the basketball, and off the Badgers, we might finally get to breathe a big sigh of relief, in February no less.