The Border Battle: Badgers and Gophers

After a disappointing home loss against Ohio State, the Badgers (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten) look to get back on track traveling to Minnesota (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten) to take on the Gophers. The game is on ESPN and tips at 6:00 PM CT.

Wisconsin enters this game coming off a loss at home to #3 Ohio State. Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes ended Wisconsin’s 6 game winning streak. The story of the game for the Badgers was their inability to make shots. The Badgers shot 40% from the field, going 22-55, which isn’t great, but not too bad. They shot just 18.5% from three point range, going just 5-27 from beyond the arc. If you expect to knock off the #3 team in the nation, you better be making your shots. Wisconsin had a chance to take the drivers seat in this crazy Big Ten race, but the loss puts them in 3rd behind Ohio State and Michigan State.

 The Gophers started this season hot, winning 12 of their first 13 games, but have been struggling in Big Ten play this year. They’ve got a middle of the road record this year at 5-6. They’ve lost to Iowa twice and got beat by double digits at home at the hands of Purdue. Though they aren’t doing as well as they’d like to, the Gophers do have some quality wins. They knocked off Illinois at home and got a huge win on the road knocking off Indiana. The Gophers enter this game coming off a 69-61 win at Nebraska.

The Badgers have had a tough time winning at Williams Arena, or as its commonly known as, “the Barn”. Bucky hasn’t won a game at the Barn since early 2008. These two teams only met once last year, with Wisconsin getting the 78-74 victory at the Kohl Center.

One of the biggest things the Badgers have going for them in this game is experience as the Gophers roster features only four players who have any game experience in this border battle in Rodney Williams, Ralph Sampson III, Austin Hollins, and Maverick Ahanimisi.

The Badgers and Gophers are bitter rivals, but these two teams have many similarities. Tubby Smith and Bo Ryan have very similar coaching philosophies. Offensively, they both favor a low tempo motion offensive that look for high quality shots. Neither team is a one man show, as they both have a balanced scoring attack. Minnesota is 33rd in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 47.5% on the year. The Badgers are ranked 202nd in field goal percentage (thanks mostly to the amount of three point shots they attempt). 

Amazingly Wisconsin is playing better away from the Kohl Center in Big Ten play, shooting 40% from behind the arc in Big Ten road games and have a conference best 4-1 record in road games.  Currently the Badgers are riding a 3 game road winning streak as well.

Usually this would be the spot where we tell you how hard of a battle it will be for Wisconsin to contain the very talented Trevor Mbakwe, but a torn ACL near the end of November has him out for the rest of the season, taking with him his 14 points per game.  Instead the Gophers have relied on the duo of Rodney Williams and veteran Ralph Sampson III up front.  Williams leads the Gophers in nearly every category and is tops in scoring (10.5ppg), rebounds (5.3rpg), blocks (1.5/game) and steals (1.5/game).  Sampson III isn’t quite as dominate as he only averages 8.4 points a game, but he’s 2nd on the team in rebounds averaging 4.7 a game.  

Look for the battle between Ryan Evans and Williams to be big indicator as to who wins this game as both are all around players that key their teams on both ends of the floor.  

Also, another intriguing thing to watch for in this game will be the battle of the benches as Wisconsin and Minnesota feature two guards that are more than capable of going off in Ben Brust (8.9ppg) and Julian Welch (10.2ppg) respectively.

This game should be a low scoring, defensive battle. The team who commits the least amount of turnovers will likely win the game. I wouldn’t expect a barn-burner, as both squads play slow, smart, “boring” basketball. One thing that concerns me with Minnesota is their ability to shoot. They are great at getting open looks and high quality shots, both inside and around the perimeter. If Wisconsin doesn’t shoot well, they usually don’t win. When the Badgers do shoot well, they’re one of the best teams in the country. It’s certain they will need to knock down shots if they want to extend their road winning streak to four games. I think this game will be very close and could go either way. I say Bucky gets things done though.

Prediction: #22 Wisconsin 64, Minnesota 61.