By The Numbers:
January 22, 2014 - Williams Arena - Minneapolis, MN
9:00 ET - BTN
After the best start in school history, the Wisconsin Badgers had a tough last week. They were upset in Bloomington, mostly because of a heroic second half performance by Yogi Ferrell, then couldn't hang with Michigan's hot shooting at home. That dropped them to the number 9 team in the country. While those losses exposed some of Wisconsin's defensive issues, they are still one of the best teams in the conference. One can debate for days about the merits of their schedule up to this point, but there's no denying that they belong near the top.
Minnesota will be coming off their toughest stretch of the season with the Wisconsin matchup. Previously, they played Michigan State, Ohio State, and Iowa. They actually picked up a win against the Buckeyes, who after losing to Nebraska are becoming more unknown by the minute, so this 4-game segment hasn't been a total disaster. They took the Spartans to overtime in East Lansing, but were handled easily by Iowa. New coach Richard Pitino has done well in his first year at Minnesota, but the team finds themselves in the middle of the conference pack. They should be able to sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an 8 or 9 seed, but will need some more wins against top opponents just to make sure.
Projected Starting Lineups:
|DeAndre Mathieu||G||Traevon Jackson|
|Andre Hollins||G||Ben Brust|
|Austin Hollins||G||Josh Gasser|
|Oto Osenieks||F||Sam Dekker|
|Elliot Eliason||C||Frank Kaminsky|
Players to Watch:
Andre Hollins: He and his brother Austin must have been salivating as they watched both Ferrell and Nik Stauskas light up Wisconsin. Like Ferrell and Stauskas, Hollins is also in the top 10 in the Big Ten in scoring per game at 16.2. While he's not as good percentage-wise as those two players, he has the potential to do big things against the Badgers. He's played very well recently, with 20+ scoring outbursts against both Michigan State and Iowa, two staunch defensive teams. Something to watch for is Hollins' performance at the free throw line. He excels from the charity stripe, shooting 84%, but Wisconsin's defense is great at keeping scorers away from the foul line. If Hollins can get to the line early and find a rhythm, the Gophers will be in good shape.
Oto Osenieks: The Latvian junior faces the toughest defensive assignment of the night: shutting down Sam Dekker. That's infinitely easier said than done, but Osenieks' recent performances don't inspire hope that he can do it. Against Ohio State, LaQuinton Ross led all scorers with 22 points, including 3-5 from behind the arc. Aaron White of Iowa also ate up the Gophers frontcourt for 18 points. For Minnesota to have a chance, Osenieks will need to disrupt Dekker's offensive flow. The more he does that, the longer he stays on the court, and the less they have to use the bench. Their bench is solid, with Maurice Walker and Joey King assisting down low, but Osenieks needs to have a solid defensive performance for a Minnesota victory.
Bronson Koenig: After a strong start to the beginning of conference play, Koenig has been absent during the Badgers' last two losses. He didn't play more than 9 minutes during that stretch, scoring a total of 0 points over two games. It's imperative that Koenig perform well against the Gophers, especially considering their backcourt depth. Their starting lineup consists of three guys who all stand 6'4" or smaller, and have Malik Smith and Daquein McNeil providing backup. This means they'll need Koenig to match Minnesota's smaller lineups. Bronson has to rebound from his recent struggles, or the Badgers won't be able to keep up with the opposition's quickness.
Josh Gasser: In the same vein of smaller lineups, Gasser faces a brand-new challenge. He's spent the majority of this year squaring off against bigger opponents, like Aaron White or Will Sheehey. Now, Gasser gets to pick on somebody his own size in Austin Hollins. It will be interesting to watch how he adapts playing against the smaller and quicker Hollins. I don't doubt he can handle it. In fact, there are few players I trust more than Gasser to handle a tough defensive assignment. But he'll need to change the way he uses his physicality to slow his man down. In addition, Gasser made huge shots in both the Indiana and Michigan game. It would be nice if he kept that up.
Trips to The Barn are never easy for the Badgers, and they face an especially tough one tonight. It's hard to see Wisconsin losing 3 straight, but then again, Ohio State just lost 4 straight. So maybe it's not that outlandish. Minnesota has a backcourt that can give Wisconsin fits. The Hollins brothers have nightly potential to burst for big scoring numbers. Wisconsin hasn't proved they can stop high-efficiency guards that are on a Hollins-talent level, and could be at risk for another scoring outburst.
Wisconsin does hold a slight advantage in the frontcourt, as they simply have more talent. But Minnesota is a very solid defensive team, and their frontcourt depth will be integral. Walker and King play important roles for this Gopher squad, especially when facing off against a solid frontcourt. If they can make Dekker and Kaminsky uncomfortable, that could have ripple effects on the Wisconsin offense as a whole.
This game could go either way. Either Wisconsin comes out flat from their two losses, or uses their recent downfalls to make them play stronger defense. I think the combination of the rivalry, the Gopher home crowd, and Minnesota's backcourt give the home team the W. Minnesota by 4.