Badgers plan to crank up defense versus rival Gophers

In the last five games, Wisconsin's opponents are hitting 40.8 percent of field goal attempts. But the Badgers' defense will be tested once more when No. 21 Wisconsin (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) plays host to rival Minnesota (16-8, 5-6) at 8 p.m. Thursday.

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MADISON, Wis. — Sam Dekker had no qualms following Tuesday’s practice with offering a blunt assessment of Wisconsin’s defensive performance against Minnesota when the teams met three weeks ago in Minneapolis.

"That was pretty bad," Dekker said.

That’s also putting it mildly.

During Minnesota’s 81-68 victory against Wisconsin on Jan. 22, the Gophers shot 58.9 percent from the field. Center Maurice Walker somehow looked like the second coming of Shaquille O’Neal by scoring a career-high 18 points, and Minnesota continually victimized Wisconsin off ball screens and shots near the rim.

It was the culmination of a three-game stretch for Wisconsin in which each opponent shot better than 50 percent from the field. Not coincidentally, the Badgers lost all three games to Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota.

"That was definitely a low point," Dekker said. "Third straight game where guys were coming off screens hitting shots, and us letting guys in the lane. Stuff that really bothers you. You go home and think about why did we let this happen?"

Wisconsin’s defensive performance has improved considerably since that time. In the last five games, opponents are hitting 40.8 percent of field goal attempts (112 of 274). But the Badgers’ defense will be tested once more when No. 21 Wisconsin (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) plays host to Minnesota (16-8, 5-6) at 8 p.m. Thursday in a rematch in the Kohl Center.

The Gophers are the only team this season to score at least 80 points against the Badgers, who haven’t forgotten how porous their defense was that night.

"They killed us on ball screens," said Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky, who played only 15 minutes in that game because of foul trouble. "That was kind of our weakness for a couple games. I think we really cleaned that up a little bit, game by game. If you see, teams really haven’t been getting to rim on us off ball screens like they were, especially in the Indiana and Minnesota games."

Kaminsky said the key to fixing those issues was communication and repetition in practice. When Wisconsin was 16-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country before the three-game losing streak, the team managed to mask some of its defensive deficiencies.

"Early on in the season, it just wasn’t a problem," he said. "Then it kind of slid under the radar for a while and it got exposed. In the Big Ten, everyone watches film on everyone. So it seems like teams were just trying to exploit that."

Minnesota endured a three-game losing streak of its own following the Wisconsin victory. But the Gophers bounced back with a 66-60 victory against Indiana on Saturday and can tie Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings while holding the overall tiebreaker. Minnesota also has guard Andre Hollins back at full strength. Hollins suffered an ankle injury during the first minute against Wisconsin and missed the next two games.

Hollins is the team’s leading scorer (14.0 points) and one of four players averaging in double figures, along with DeAndre Mathieu (11.8), Austin Hollins (11.7) and Malik Smith (10.0). Walker is averaging 7.5 points per game but has scored in double figures in four of the past five contests, and containing him Thursday will be paramount to Wisconsin’s success.

Badgers coach Bo Ryan described his team’s interior defense this season as "average" on Monday and noted that without last year’s frontcourt of Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans, there has been a considerable learning curve this season.

A year ago, opponents made 39.4 percent of field goal attempts against Wisconsin. This year, opponents are shooting 42.3 percent.

"They’ve had some good games," Ryan said of his interior defense. "They’ve had some games where they’ve struggled. Nigel Hayes has definitely helped us in that area with post defense. That’s what we do. We teach. We point out things. Angles. Footwork. Different things to try to help these guys get better, and they’re working at it."

The improvement has not come as swiftly as some might have wanted, but the Badgers are hoping their best defensive performances remain on the horizon. With seven Big Ten games remaining, as well as the conference and NCAA tournaments, they’re counting on it.

"I think the past few games we’ve held guys to tough scoring nights and forced teams to not shoot as well," Dekker said. "We’re trying to get back to where we were at. We’re going to have lapses here or there. Every team does. But if we want to be a good team, if we want to be a great team, we’ve got to take some of those kinks out of the game and get to playing as close to 40 minutes of perfect defense as possible."

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