Hard work and getting back to the basics have given the 2015-16 Wisconsin Badgers an opportunity many believed wasn’t a possibility two months ago — the NCAA tournament. Wins over three top 10 Big Ten opponents in a span of a few weeks cemented that status, as did a senior night victory over Michigan this past Sunday.
But, the Badgers have a few more tests in front of them if they want to continue a 14-year streak of fourth place or better finishes in the Big Ten and really lock up an NCAA tournament berth. That starts on Wednesday with the lone Border Battle with the Minnesota Gophers.
To say the Gophers are reeling would be an understatement of epic proportions. Head coach Richard Pitino has spent more time on disciplining his players than anything else as of late. It has led to a team that is just 8-20 overall and 2-14 in Big Ten play.
However, just ask Maryland how dangerous this Gophers team can be at home at Williams Arena. It’s a point UW interim head coach Greg Gard emphasized, along with making sure the team knew its own role in getting a victory on Wednesday.
“But I think just from our standpoint, we never really get too wound up in the opponent,” Gard said at his weekly press conference. “We prepare more for making sure we play the proper way. We know it’s a tough place to play. It’s a team that’s very capable with what they’ve done, most recently against Maryland.”
The team Wisconsin will face will be much different though, as the Gophers struggle with off-the-court issues galore as of late.
First it was a dismissal of point guard Carlos Morris for conduct detrimental to the team back on Feb. 17, and now it is three players suspended from the team for a horrific Instagram video with a sex act in the video.
On Tuesday, Pitino went as far as suspending starting guards Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer and reserve guard Kevin Dorsey for the rest of the season. On Sunday, those three missing players meant just six scholarship players available and walk-on freshman Stephon Sharp was the starting point guard.
It didn’t go well for the Gophers, losing by 13 points to a mediocre (at best) Illinois team, 84-71.
Now Mason, who leads the Gophers with averages of 13.8 points and 32.6 minutes per game is gone for the rest of the season.
All of it adds up to a team clearly in turmoil in a definitive third season for Pitino in Minneapolis.
It also adds up to a team with literally nothing more to loose, and that means a dangerous situation for a Badgers team with a lot to loose. Just don’t tell that to Gard or the players, as they take the ultimate “next game up” approach.
“I think these guys understand that’s how we approach this (where this season could end up) and that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are,” said Gard. “They will have plenty to worry about when we get done with film session, in terms of what we’re going to look at today and worry about this practice. So we will just prepare for this practice and get ready for Minnesota. Again, that’s the mind-set we’ve taken all year. I don’t even really let them jump ahead even to the game yet.”
Still, this is a team more than capable of finding itself in a massive shooting slump or allowing an opposing player to go absolutely off. Maybe Minnesota doesn’t have “that guy” after Mason’s suspension, but don’t doubt these guys will take this Border Battle with the utmost seriousness.
The team that figures out how to play like the real team with nothing to loose may end up being the one with the W on Wednesday, regardless of their place in the Big Ten standings coming in to the contest at Williams Arena.