Minnesota basketball is on the rise, while Wisconsin’s season has been a struggle. Talk about a couple of phrases you haven’t seen regularly in the last few years.
But things are different in 2012-13 as the teams prepare for the first of two Border Battle games. Minnesota entered the week ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, with its only three losses coming to teams in the top seven – until it was tripped up Wednesday night at Northwestern. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has lost its grip on first place in the Big Ten thanks to consecutive defeats against Iowa and Michigan State. This coming after a lackluster nonconference season.
The Badgers can’t afford a third straight loss if they hope to keep pace in conference play, and the Gophers want to prove they belong in the discussion among the Big Ten’s best. So when the teams meet at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Kohl Center, expect the intensity to ratchet up even more than usual.
FOXSportsNorth.com’s Gophers writer Tyler Mason and FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s Badgers writer Jesse Temple take a closer look at Saturday’s game in this five-question point-counterpoint:
1. Given what you’ve seen so far, where will the team you cover finish in the Big Ten and what kind of a seed will it be in the NCAA Tournament (assuming you think your team will make it)?
MASON: At times this year, the Gophers have looked like one of the Big Ten’s best teams. It appeared that way when Minnesota beat No. 12 Illinois on the road to improve to 3-0 in conference play. Since then, though, Tubby Smith’s team has lost three straight. Granted, two of those losses were against top-five teams. Still, Minnesota’s recent skid has shown how tough it is to win in the Big Ten and reinforced what everyone knew before the season: The Big Ten is perhaps the best conference in college basketball.
With that said, it’s still plausible the Gophers could finish among the top four teams in the Big Ten — although they’d need to turn things around quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnesota went to the NCAA Tournament as high as a No. 3 seed. With the talent they have, the Gophers shouldn’t be any worse than a six seed, which would be the highest seed a Smith-led Minnesota team has held. The Gophers were a No. 10 in 2009 and a No. 11 in 2010.
TEMPLE: Since Bo Ryan took over as Wisconsin’s basketball coach in 2001-02, the Badgers have never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. Despite a 4-0 start this season in conference play, Wisconsin already is in jeopardy of falling outside the top four after two consecutive losses.
Wisconsin has the players and the style of play to battle with any team in the conference, but the Badgers don’t consistently shoot the ball well enough right now. I’ll predict Wisconsin to finish fifth in the Big Ten this season, which is plenty good enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Badgers already have a big road victory against then-No. 2 Indiana, and that will boost their seeding come NCAA Tournament time. Plus, there are several more opportunities to score huge wins in the toughest conference in college basketball. Book Wisconsin for a No. 7 seed in the big dance.
2. Neither of these teams is a one-man show, but who has been your team’s MVP so far?
MASON: Although he had his worst game of the season on Wednesday against Northwestern, sophomore point guard Andre Hollins has been Minnesota’s MVP this year. He’s Minnesota’s leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and is also averaging a team-high 3.7 assists per game. Hollins burst onto the college basketball scene nationally when he scored 41 points against Memphis earlier this season and already has five 20-point games, including three against Big Ten teams.
As Hollins showed Wednesday at Northwestern, Minnesota goes as he goes. He had a season-high seven turnovers and scored just six points as the Gophers lost, 55-48. Hollins needs to take better care of the ball Saturday than he did Wednesday or Minnesota will be in trouble in Madison against a Wisconsin team that doesn’t make many mistakes. Hollins can create his own shot better than any other player on the Gophers, and he needs to score consistently for Minnesota.
TEMPLE: Jared Berggren is one of the most underrated centers in the country, and without him, who knows what kind of shape Wisconsin would be in at this stage? Berggren leads the Badgers in scoring (12.5 points per game) and is second in rebounding (6.4). He also has a team-best 35 blocks.
Berggren’s ability to stretch the floor against opposing big men can create matchup problems — he has made 13 3-pointers this season. But he is strong enough to battle in the post when necessary. Given Wisconsin’s lack of frontcourt depth, Berggren may be the single most important player on the team this season.
3. Tubby Smith vs. Bo Ryan: As a game coach, who gets the edge?
MASON: Smith has something Bo Ryan doesn’t have: a national championship. Of course, Smith’s title came when he was the head coach at Kentucky. Since coming to Minnesota, Smith has led the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament just twice in five seasons. Ryan’s Wisconsin teams, meanwhile, have made the NCAA tournament every year since he took over in 2001-02 — a streak of 11 straight seasons.
Minnesota fans were excited when the Gophers hired Smith back in 2007, but they’ve seemingly grown frustrated with the coach’s inability to lead his teams deep into the postseason. This year’s team is easily the best Smith has had at Minnesota, but the verdict is still out on whether he can lead it to a strong finish.
On the flip side, Ryan’s teams always seem to be in the mix in the Big Ten, regardless of how they’re picked to finish in the conference. Wisconsin wasn’t given much of a chance to compete in the league this year but has already knocked off No. 2 Indiana on the road and No. 12 Illinois at home.
Ryan’s ability to coach up underachieving teams gives him the edge on Smith.
TEMPLE: These men have combined for 1,169 coaching victories, so you really can’t go wrong either way. But I’ll give the edge to Ryan simply based on his track record at Wisconsin of maximizing his players’ potential, even when others don’t think the team will be very good.
Ryan has implemented a system that allows Wisconsin to compete against any team in the country. The Badgers consistently rank among the national leaders in scoring defense, and the team is deep enough that opponents can’t key in on one player.
At the Kohl Center under Ryan, Wisconsin is an astounding 176-17 (.911 winning percentage). That type of record doesn’t just happen unless the man in charge of the program prepares his players for battle every game.
4. What’s the toughest matchup in this game for the team you cover?
MASON: The toughest matchup for Minnesota will be how the Gophers stack up against the 6-foot-10 Berggren. The 6-foot-10 senior is a Princeton, Minn., native and could use his size to give his hometown team a headache on Saturday.
The Gophers just don’t have the size to match up well against a guy like Berggren. Minnesota’s tallest starter is senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who is 6-foot-8. The Gophers’ two tallest players, 6-foot-11 Elliott Eliason and 6-foot-10 Mo Walker — have been used sparingly in Big Ten play. Berggren also figures to be a force on defense against Minnesota’s offense — his 1.8 blocks per game are second-best in the conference.
TEMPLE: Hollins already has shown what kind of scoring threat he is against tough opponents. He dropped 41 points on Memphis earlier in the season and 25 on Indiana less than two weeks ago. Wisconsin will have to do a better job of containing him if the Badgers hope to win Saturday at the Kohl Center.
On Tuesday, Michigan State point guard Keith Appling scored a game-high 19 points against Wisconsin, so the Badgers are susceptible to being bitten by explosive guards.
5. Who wins this game and by how much?
MASON: Prior to Wednesday, I might have given Minnesota a slight edge despite being on the road. But after seeing how the Gophers played at Northwestern, I don’t see them pulling off the win in Madison. Both teams are coming off losses in games they probably should have won, but the Badgers will win this one at home. It will be close and low-scoring — just the way Ryan’s teams prefer to play — with Wisconsin winning by six.
TEMPLE: This is a game Wisconsin absolutely needs to win in order to compete for a top spot in the Big Ten. The Badgers are coming off a gut-wrenching 49-47 home loss to Michigan State on Tuesday night in which they shoot as poorly as they have all season. Road games against Ohio State and Illinois are on the horizon, and the last thing Wisconsin wants is to prepare for that trek having already lost three straight games (Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota).