Andre Hollins, Gophers eager to face Badgers again
FEB 12, 2014 4:51p ET
For starters, it was during Minnesota's game against the Badgers last month in which Hollins suffered a sprained ankle that forced him to miss his team's next two games -- both losses. On top of that, a now-healthy Hollins will be traveling to the Kohl Center, a building in which he's never won during his three years at Minnesota.
"I'm looking to get that first win," Hollins said Wednesday.
As Hollins watched from the locker room -- and later, from the bench -- after spraining his ankle on Jan. 22, his Gophers teammates rallied without him to upset the visiting Badgers by an 81-68 final. First-year Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said Wednesday that perhaps some good came out of Hollins' absence in that the Gophers had to adjust their game plan a bit without their leading scorer.
With Hollins out, Minnesota was forced to rely more on its post presence. In that win against Wisconsin, center Mo Walker had a career-high 18 points as the Badgers had no answer for him in the paint. Since then, Walker has scored in double figures in each of his last three games. Sophomore Joey King has also emerged as a threat down low, and center Elliott Eliason continues to provide interior defense.
In that sense, the Gophers have become a bit of a different team since they last faced the Badgers three weeks ago.
"We somewhat abandoned the outside game and started going inside," Pitino said. "I think we figured we can go inside and we can win some games, because we had to without Andre."
Just like Minnesota is a different team since its win over Wisconsin -- the Gophers went 1-3 during that stretch -- the Badgers have also had an interesting path to Thursday's rematch in Madison. Wisconsin was ranked No. 9 when Minnesota won at Williams Arena and later went on to lose back-to-back home games against Northwestern and Ohio State. Yet the Badgers, who were once the third-ranked team in the country early in the year, rebounded with wins at Illinois and at home against No. 8 Michigan State and now enter Thursday's game ranked No. 21.
Pitino was asked Wednesday what he saw as the key difference betwee the Badgers squad that his team beat and the one Minnesota will face Thursday. His answer honed in on the improvement of one Wisconsin player.
"The one big difference is Nigel Hayes," Pitino said. "He's kind of had a great impact on that team. They're playing him a lot more. When he played versus us, he wasn't really the focal point of their offense, and he's becoming that. He's really, really hard to guard."
Hayes, a freshman forward, had 12 points in the loss to Minnesota last month. After quiet games offensively against Purdue and Northwestern, Hayes has since scored an average of 15 points per game in Wisconsin's last three contests. Pitino has said that Indiana's Noah Vonleh is arguably the Big Ten's top freshman, but added Wednesday that Hayes is close behind.
The Gophers didn't necessarily have to gameplan for Hayes the last time out. That very well may change on Thursday.
"He definitely came in aggressive against us," said Minnesota sophomore Joey King, who likely will guard the 6-foot-7 Hayes in Thursday's matchup. "He's been stepping up big for them in the Big Ten season. He's definitely going to be one of their focal points of their offense when he's in, so we're going to do our best to shut him down."
Hollins and the Gophers fell victim to a last-second shot in Madison a year ago and lost 45-44. This year's game probably won't be offensively challenged, as both teams have shown a propensity to push the tempo more than they did last year.
Regardless of how low-scoring Thursday's game is, Minnesota could use another big win. It got one on Saturday at home against Indiana, but a victory on the road against a ranked opponent could go a long way come March.
A season sweep against their rivals to the east would be nice for the Gophers, too. And Minnesota would love to erase last year's Kohl Center demons, as the thought of Badgers guard Traevon Jackson's last-second game winner still haunts the Gophers more than a year later.
"We have to get revenge from that standpoint," Hollins said. "You don't forget games like that."
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