Wisconsin played one of their most complete games of the season against the rival Minnesota Gophers, and came away victorious for a 78-70 win. In this victory, the Badgers exercised some of the demons that had been holding them back during their mid-season struggles: lackadaisical defense, Nigel Hayes' struggles at the free-throw line, and uninspired play by Sam Dekker. Drastic improvements in all three of those categories were on display in this win. This puts the Badgers at 20-5, as they look to move from a probable 4 seed to a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Things aren't so rosy for the Gophers. They now stand at 16-9, as their bracket bubble looks close to popping.
Throughout this year, Wisconsin's defense has been their weakest link. Their inability to force turnovers and make dynamic guards uncomfortable kept them in their January funk, where they went on a 1-5 stretch. But they forced 13 turnovers against Minnesota, and made life difficult for their entire team. Those 13 turnovers are a shockingly low number, because the Badgers seemed to get their hands into passing lanes on almost every possession. That was an uncharacteristically aggressive performance from the Wisconsin defense, and is something that I would love to see carried over into the future.
Their defense also made the Gophers work hard for their baskets. There have been too many games this season where Wisconsin has let opposing point guards drive to the hoop with no opposition. But Deandre Mathieu had only 8 points on 3-10 shooting, and did so by driving to the basket at a furious pace through tons of contact. In addition, there have been too many games this season where the Badgers have let their opponents roll off screens and hit jump shots in rhythm. Andre Hollins and Malik Smith had to work for their buckets. Hollins had a game-high 22 points, including 4-6 from three. Smith also contributed 4 threes for a total of 14 points. If not for Hollins' heroics late, this game would not be as close as it seemed. Although the Badgers let up 70 points, I can't complain about their defense this game.
Offensively, Wisconsin looked much-improved. Ben Brust finally came out of his three-point shooting slump, and had the perfect Ben Brust game. 20 points, including 4-4 from behind the arc and 6-8 from the line, as well as 6 tough rebounds proved that he's back. When Brust knocks down the three, Wisconsin's offense can operate line none other.
People need to stop giving Nigel Hayes the open mid-range jumper. It's become sublime to watch. His confidence on that shot is through the roof, and he rarely misses when his body is square (actually scratch that, keep giving him the open mid-range jumper). He also went 5-6 from the line, which is a necessary improvement, and added 2 steals, including one where he disrupted the Gophers' offense before they crossed half-court. He stole the ball, and had plenty of space to slam it home. For a second, it looked like he wanted to do an exciting and unique dunk, in the spirit of the NBA All-Star Weekend. But Hayes knew he'd get benched if he tried a between-the-legs slam, and just settled on the simple two-hander. Maybe next time.
It's amazing to see the effect that Nigel Hayes' breakout season is having on the rest of the team, especially on his fellow big men. For example, Frank Kaminsky played with tons of confidence. He added 17 points and played with an unforeseen energy. I mean, watch him go coast-to-coast, break the press, and slam.
In my opinion, he should have tried the beloved in-game free-throw line dunk, a la JaVale McGee. This team needs to add cooler dunks to their arsenal.
Sam Dekker played with an aggression that had been lacking from his recent performances as well. It's not unlikely that Dekker feels the pressure from Hayes. They go at it in practice every day, and Dekker knows he has to assert himself as "the man." In this game, Dekker drove to the hoop with authority and pulled down strong rebounds. He needs to keep attacking the basket. He has the athleticism and skill to do so, he just needs to make it happen.
To top it all off, Traevon Jackson played with calmness and maturity. While he didn't do to much statistically (9 points, 1 assist), he only turned the ball over once on a weird palming violation, and handled the tough matchup of Mathieu quite well. Minnesota is the type of team that Jackson struggles against - quick, angry, and forces lots of turnovers. Jackson slowed the game down and made smart decisions.
It's looking more and more likely that the Big Ten will only send 5 teams to the NCAA Tournament. That's a bummer for the Best Conference in Basketball™, but the Gophers have a tough road ahead to sneak into the big dance. They have three straight at Ohio State, home against Iowa, and at Michigan. That will be a challenge. It would be unfair to call Richard Pitino's first season a failure, but Gopher fans had tournament expectations this year that probably won't be met.
For Wisconsin, this victory was a nice 21st Birthday present for Josh Gasser. Although Gasser has bad taste in announcers, we still love him.
Dan Dakich is definitely the best and most entertaining ESPN commentator. Every game needs him— Josh Gasser (@JPGasser21) February 12, 2014
Josh, you're so so wrong. Happy Valentine's Day.