By any measure, a successful rivalry game in college basketball is supposed to contain two parts: 1) Teams located in such close proximity of each other that opposing fans cringe at intermingling. And 2) Evenly matched outcomes over a lengthy period of time.
When it comes to Wisconsin-Minnesota, at least you can say the two schools share hatred and a border — because the Badgers and the Gophers certainly don’t share consistent levels of success.
“We haven’t held up our bargain of being much of a rivalry,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said this week. “They’ve beaten us quite a few times. A few tough games, close games, but we haven’t seemed to be able to pull them out.”
No. 20 Wisconsin (17-7, 8-3) travels to face Minnesota (17-7, 5-6) at 6 p.m. Thursday, and the Badgers will carry with them a four-game winning streak in the series. Wisconsin also has won 16 of the last 20 games overall and is 6-3 in games played at Williams Arena.
Maybe the “rivalry” could use a jumpstart. But at least recent history shows the teams have played close games, even if they all go in favor of Wisconsin.
Last year, Wisconsin required overtime to earn a 68-61 victory at Williams Arena. And less than three weeks ago, Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson needed a jumper with 2.1 seconds remaining to allow Wisconsin to escape, 45-44, at the Kohl Center. Though Jackson, a sophomore, still struggles to limit his turnovers, his fearlessness has proven vital for the Badgers down the stretch of late.
“He believes,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “And we do situations with the shot clock winding down or the game clock. It wasn’t exactly all net. It was rim, backboard, in the basket. The chances of that missing were every bit as good of the chances of it going in. Minnesota played pretty good defense. That was a tough shot.”
While Wisconsin has found a way to win most of its close games — the Badgers have won seven of their nine Big Ten games decided by single digits — Minnesota has scuffled. The Gophers have lost five of their six Big Ten games decided by single digits.
Smith said his team “blew an opportunity” on Sunday against Illinois, when the Illini held on for a 57-53 victory in a loss that epitomized the Gophers’ issues the past month. Minnesota turned the ball over 13 times against Illinois, including one with 50 seconds left and the team trailing by a point. Illinois scored on its very next trip, and Gophers guard Austin Hollins air-balled a 3-pointer not long after.
“We just haven’t executed well, especially taking care of the basketball in late-game situations,” Smith said. “Wisconsin is one of the best in executing and the way they’ve won the last couple of games, on last-second shots and stuff, they really are playing well, playing with a lot of confidence.
“We think and hope that playing here at the barn, at Williams Arena, would be an advantage for us, but we’ve struggled shooting the ball.”
It has been quite a reversal of fortunes for Minnesota, which was the toast of college basketball on Jan. 9 after beating then-No. 12 Illinois, 84-67, at Assembly Hall. The Gophers were 15-1 and on the verge of one of their best seasons in program history.
Since that game, the realities of Big Ten life have settled in and Minnesota has lost six of its last eight games to drop into sixth place in the conference.
Despite the Gophers’ free fall, Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz, a St. Paul, Minn., native, called the Gophers one of the most athletic teams in the country and didn’t expect them to play with any added sense of desperation.
“You can’t even say they’re desperate,” Bruesewitz said. “They’re a very good team. They’re very talented. They’ve been ranked almost all year. You can’t really be desperate in this league because everybody is so good. You’ve got to bring you’re ‘A’ game every night regardless of the last three games or regardless of what happened the night before.”
Wisconsin forward Jared Berggren, also a Minnesota native (Princeton), said the Badgers would need to do a better job of keeping the Gophers’ frontline off the glass. Minnesota center Trevor Mbakwe tallied eight points and a game-high 10 rebounds in the teams’ first matchup, although the Gophers registered a season-low for points scored in a game this season.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Berggren said, “and we’re going to have to stick to our rules and play well defensively.”
One more solid defensive performance, and Wisconsin could walk away with yet another victory in the border series. The last thing Badgers players want to do is add any intrigue to a one-sided “rivalry.”