MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s offense is at its best when the Gophers are able to score in transition and push the tempo of the game. Their opponent Thursday is just the opposite. The Badgers love to slow the game down, almost painstakingly so, and thrive on running their half-court offense until the shot clock near its expiration.
That’s the reason why last month’s matchup between these two teams was the Gophers’ lowest-scoring game of the season — a 45-44 Wisconsin victory. Now, Minnesota is preparing for what could be another low-scoring slugfest in a must-win game for the Gophers.
“It’s real tough to play Wisconsin. You want to get out and run and get things moving, but they’re a team that using the whole 35-second shot clock,” said Minnesota senior forward Rodney Williams. “It’s real tiring to play against those guys. You give up an offensive rebound and you have to play defense for that much longer.”
Back on Jan. 26 in Madison, Williams had a chance to tie the game with two last-second free throws after fellow senior Trevor Mbakwe was injured when he was fouled with less than two seconds remaining. Williams was chosen by Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan to shoot in place of Mbakwe and he missed the second free throw, allowing the Badgers to hold on for the one-point win. It was the fourth straight loss for Minnesota, which has since lost two more games and dropped out of the Top 25 rankings earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has won three more games since beating the Gophers, including an upset win of No. 3 Michigan in overtime on Saturday. In that game, the Badgers held the Wolverines to an uncharacteristically low 62 points.
“They give themselves a chance to win by not turning the ball over and playing smart, solid basketball,” said Gophers coach Tubby Smith. “In order to beat them, you’ve got to make sure that you do a better job of those things, of taking care of the basketball. It’s tough to beat them at that game if you can’t force the tempo and you like running, which we do.”
Turnovers have been a problem all season for Minnesota, which averages 13.8 turnovers per game. Wisconsin, meanwhile, gives the ball away just 9.4 times per game, fewest in the Big Ten. The Gophers actually won that battle last time out against the Badgers by a 10-9 margin.
If Minnesota hopes to push the tempo against a Wisconsin team that likes to slow it down, the Gophers will indeed have to take care of the ball.
“They make every possession count. That’s what we’re going to have to do,” said Gophers sophomore point guard Andre Hollins. “We’re going to have to take care of the basketball and make sure we push the ball up the court before their defense sets up, because they play a packed-in defense. We’re going to have to defend them and rebound, because we don’t need them taking second shots and essentially taking a minute-plus off the game in just two possessions.”
After losing two straight games and six of their last eight, this game has plenty of significance for the Gophers. There certainly won’t be any love lost on this Valentine’s Day matchup between these rivals.
“Wisconsin, they’re a tough team. They’re up there in the top tier,” Hollins said. “This win, it’s a big win for us, especially to hold home court. It’s going to be great for our morale. We need to get back to .500 and get on this winning streak.”
Williams set to return Friday: A shoulder injury kept Williams from Sunday’s game against Illinois, but Williams said Wednesday that he will “definitely play” Thursday against Wisconsin.
Williams, who injured the shoulder in practice while trying to fight through a screen, said the shoulder is still only 85 percent but plans to play through the pain.
“Just a little sharp pain when I bring my arm up too fast. It’s nothing that’s going to stop me from playing tomorrow,” Williams said.
It’s unclear whether Williams will start for Minnesota or come off the bench. Smith was noncommittal on the issue Wednesday but hinted that Williams would likely start.
Sunday’s game was the first Williams had missed since his freshman season. Watching his Gophers teammates struggle in the loss to the Illini gave him a new vantage point of what Minnesota needs to improve the rest of the year.
“Sitting there and being able to watch the whole game, I definitely saw things from a different perspective like us not getting back in transition and us not boxing out when we needed to, stuff like that,” William said. “That’s all stuff that we’ve been working on in practice every day. Hopefully we can transfer that into the game tomorrow.”
Williams is the Gophers’ second-leading scorer, averaging 11.9 points per game. His He’s also second in rebounds with 5.5 per game.