Coming off a disappointing six point home loss to Northwestern, it's essentially do or die for the Gophers, and no challenge will prove tougher from here on out than Saturday's game in Madison. Elsewhere in the league, Penn State goes on the road to face the Northwestern Wildcats.
Game of the Day
Minnesota vs. #5 Wisconsin; 12 PM ET; ESPN; WIS -14.5
Though considered a distant bubble team for the NCAA tournament, Minnesota's hopes of going dancing seem to be slipping away. A home loss to struggling Northwestern capitalized a year that has been disappointing for the Gophers. It marked another close loss for the Gophers in the Big Ten, and did I mention that Northwestern has just 3 wins in conference play? The Gophers undoubtedly have quite a bit of work to do if they want to hear their name called on Selection Sunday, and there may be no better chance than a road game against the Badgers. That being said, it certainly won't be an easy task.
Wisconsin sits atop the Big Ten standings with only one conference loss (on the road to Rutgers). No Big Ten team has mustered the ability to win at Wisconsin, and the struggling Gophers will certainly have their hands full with top-tier center Frank Kaminsky. Minnesota utilizes a trio of quick and elusive guards in Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, and Carlos Morris and often receives contributions from freshman Nate Mason. Mason came off the bench in Minnesota's most recent loss to Northwestern to score 15 points on 50% shooting. Center Maurice Walker will have to be an animal in the paint for Minnesota to have a shot at shutting down one of the best front courts in the nation in Wisconsin. Though Walker scores 11.7 points per contest and grabs 6.2 boards, he will likely have a hard time fending off the seemingly the unstoppable trio of forwards in Kaminsky, Dekker, and Hayes that Wisconsin utilizes.
Though Wisconsin's weaknesses are minimal, it seems their lack of depth has yet to be exposed. With the injury of starting point guard Traevon Jackson, the Badgers play a lineup that only runs 6 or 7 men deep. The problem is that Wisconsin really doesn't foul. Big men Kamisnky, Dekker, and Hayes all average less than 2 fouls per contest, and it's tough to force them to the bench. However, if Minnesota goes into attack mode and decides not to settle for jump shots, they could make Wisconsin sweat by drawing fouls and getting to the stripe. We haven't had to see Wisconsin play with a lineup that they're uncomfortable with yet. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Wisconsin were forced to use some of their reserves due to early game foul trouble.
While Wisconsin should be worried about Minnesota's quick guards driving the lane, the Gophers should really be worried about their perimeter defense after allowing Northwestern to hit 15 three pointers! Not convincing enough? Try 18 three pointers given up in a 90-71 loss to Indiana just three days prior. Wisconsin typically does not settle, but they will light you up if given the chance. Expect huge games out of Wisconsin's three point shooters such as Josh Gasser and maybe even Frank Kaminsky.
Penn State vs. Northwestern; 3 PM ET; ESPNU; NW -1.5
In a match up with little to no implication on either of these teams frustrating seasons, both will try to look for some momentum going into March and the Big Ten Tournament. Though Penn State has lost 5 of their last 6, 4 of them have been by fewer than 10 points. Pat Chambers and D.J. Newbill know that the Nittany Lions have the talent, they are just a unable to break the seal and string together some good wins.
On the other side of the equation, things have been looking up lately for the Wildcats. After a troubling 1-10 start to conference play, Northwestern has suddenly won two straight road games, stunning both Iowa and Minnesota. Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps have really sparked lately to give their team a late-season boost. Though Northwestern certainly has momentum coming into this game, they are still fighting to win their fist home game in conference play this year.