Nate Mason always knew when it was Border Battle week. Random students would walk up to him and his Gophers basketball teammates on campus to make sure they knew only one thing mattered: beating Wisconsin.
"As soon as I stepped on campus, it was always," Mason said, " 'You got to beat Wisconsin.' "
Gophers coach Richard Pitino hasn't beaten Wisconsin since his first season with the program in 2013-14. Not only does the U have six straight losses in the series, it hasn't won in Madison since 2009.
But this might be the best opportunity in years for the Gophers to end that drought.
Not only because this is Pitino's most talented team yet. Not only because there's even more motivation with a win resulting in the No. 2 seed in next week's Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C.
The Gophers (23-7, 11-6 Big Ten), who secured a double-bye in the conference tournament when Maryland beat Michigan State on Saturday, are the hottest team in the Big Ten with an eight-game win streak entering Sunday's regular-season finale. Meanwhile, the No. 22 Badgers (22-8, 11-6) are suffering through their worst conference slide in years, costing them a shot at the Big Ten title. They have dropped five of the past six games, including three in a row.
"We're just confident right now, and they're not," Gophers sophomore Dupree McBrayer said. "We know we're better, and we know we can win. That's the mind-set we have to go in there with."
Wisconsin was the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. Some college hoops observers even considered the Badgers a potential Final Four team. They have four senior starters, including preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Nigel Hayes and all-conference guard Bronson Koenig. Ethan Happ became a national player of the year candidate.
"They're still a very, very good team," Pitino said. "Terrific talent. Well-coached and experienced. That's a lot of things going in their favor."
But Wisconsin's weaknesses were exposed in overtime wins at Minnesota 78-76 and against Rutgers 61-54. Happ scored 28 and 32 points in the victories, respectively. Stop Happ. Stop Wisconsin. That's what happened moving forward.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore saw even more double and triple teams. In the past seven games, Happ has averaged 11.7 points and is shooting 42.4 percent from the foul line. He scored under double figures four times.
Gophers center and Big Ten shot block leader Reggie Lynch got into foul trouble vs. Wisconsin on Jan. 21. Happ scored 20 points during a seven-minute stretch in the second half with Lynch mostly benched.
Lynch, who has 17 blocks in the past two games, hasn't fouled out in four consecutive games. His defensive presence against Happ could be the difference Sunday.
"I got to give a little credit to Coach, because he's getting me out early so I don't foul," Lynch said. "But I am figuring it out more. I'm going up straight instead of trying to swat at everything. Going into this game, it will help because I have to learn to wall-up against Happ."
Pitino didn't double-team Happ because he was afraid of the Badgers' outside shooting. But in the past 10 games, they are shooting only 28 percent from three-point range.
Mason and Jordan Murphy also played their worst game together in the last meeting with Wisconsin. Mason shot just 3-for-14 from the field. Murphy had four points and a career-low one rebound in 26 minutes.
But Mason is averaging 19 points and four assists in his past 10 games. Murphy is putting up 17.3 points and 13.7 rebounds in his past seven games. They could be the first pair of All-Big Ten Gophers since Andre Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe in 2012-13, the last time the program made the NCAA tournament.
The improvement of Mason and Murphy has fueled the Gophers' longest Big Ten win streak since the 1996-97 vacated Final Four season. Those Gophers won 12 conference games in a row before falling 66-65 at Madison. That was the last time they ended the regular season playing Wisconsin.
No matter how much success the Gophers are enjoying right now, players would hear about it around campus next week if they lost to the Badgers again.
"People are always saying, 'Better dead than red,' " McBrayer said. "Some of my classmates have been telling me that we better beat Wisconsin."