Minnesota hopes to get back on track vs. rival Wisconsin
MINNEAPOLIS — Sitting among the top teams in the Big Ten and being ranked nationally is nothing new for the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team.
Typically, a veteran-laden team, this year is no different with four seniors starting and Wisconsin ranked No. 17 in the country. This season is very different for Saturday’s opponent, the Minnesota Gophers.
Coming off an eight-win season, Minnesota worked its way back. The Gophers started the season 12-1. They were 15-2 in earning a No. 24 ranking before a pair of losses last week.
Saturday’s game in Minnesota offers intrigue beyond just a matchup of rivals. Gophers coach Richard Pitino wants his team to enjoy the fact they’ve “earned people’s respect.”
“I want them to be proud of the fact that people want to see them again,” Pitino said Friday. “Getting ranked was a little bit of a step in the right direction. Getting people’s respect back is another step in the right direction. I want them to be proud of that, but we still know, obviously, that we’ve got a lot of games left and we’ve got a really good program in front of us coming to our building.”
The Badgers (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) have garnered their respect for years, even as coach Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan. Gard is 30-11 since taking over for Ryan a year ago.
This year, Wisconsin has sophomore Ethan Happ complementing standout seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. Happ is averaging 12.8 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game while shooting 60.5 percent.
“I don’t know if he’s the best player; he’s one of the best players in the league,” Pitino said. “But he is the toughest cover, in my opinion, in the league; very, very challenging.”
Koenig leads the team with a 14.5 points-per-game average and Hayes is averaging 13.6 points per game. Seniors Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown round out the starting lineup for the Badgers, but the Wisconsin State Journal reported Brown is questionable for Saturday’s game with a knee injury.
For Minnesota, an infusion of new players has sparked the change from a year ago. Junior guard Nate Mason leads the team at point guard and Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer are starters in their sophomore seasons. Freshmen Amir Coffey and Eric Curry along with transfers Reggie Lynch and Akeem Springs have altered the look.
“It’s a completely different (Minnesota) team now — night and day,” Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft told the school’s website. Krabbenhoft was an assistant coach last season with South Dakota State, which beat the Gophers.
“The roster is different in a lot of ways and the identity of the team has focused on the defensive end,” Krabbenhoft told UWBadgers.com. “The guys they did have returning from last year learned from what they went through and decided that was not the way they wanted it to go and they’re playing like a team that clearly has their eyes on the NCAA tournament. We know that.”
The defensive focus has helped Minnesota (15-4, 3-3), but Pitino is worried about the offense that fell flat in losses to Michigan State and Penn State last week. The Gophers scored a total of 97 points in the two road games. They had a week off to address the issues.
“I think we needed some time to get our offensive confidence back,” Pitino said. “We really lost it in the Penn State game. I just thought Michigan State kicked our butt, where Penn State, we really lost confidence offensively during that game. We got back to work and looked good this week.”
The Badgers have won back-to-back games at home against Ohio State and Michigan. They beat Michigan 68-64 on Tuesday. Koenig led four players in double-figures scoring with 16 points.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game and it was actually tougher in some aspects than we thought, but that’s what we expect in the Big Ten,” Hayes said after the game. “Unfortunately, grind-it-out is a term used in football games sometimes, but it’s still good and we just got to make sure we take care of our end.”
Wisconsin has won 11 of its past 12 games, outscoring teams by 19.6 points during the stretch. Hayes has averaged 15 points per game during that time and the Badgers have the Big Ten’s top scoring defense in giving up just 60.4 points per game to opponents.