Minnesota hosts Wisconsin tonight at 6:00 p.m. Watch on ESPN and listen live on 1500-a.m.
Here's a stat for you (Sam Ekstrom of 150.1 The Ticket first brought it up yesterday at media access): the Gophers are 3-0 when they've played teams twice this season. That includes games against Iowa (lost at home, won on the road), Nebraska (lost on the road, won at home) and Purdue (lost on the road, won at home).
Now Minnesota ends the season with the final "two-play" teams, and squads the Gophers lost to the first time around -- Sunday's finale vs. Penn State, and tonight's battle vs. Wisconsin.
At least, the Gophers hope it will be a battle. The Badgers have lost just two conference games this year, three in all, and only one to an unranked team (that loss at Rutgers, when national Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky was on the bench with concussion symptoms).
And of course, Wisconsin is no Iowa, no Nebraska, no Purdue. The Badgers are the country's 6th ranked team, and would wrap up the regular-season league title with a win tonight.
"Home has a lot to do with it," coach Richard Pitino said of the Gophers' previous luck in winning round two. "I do think it's tough to beat a team two times, just for whatever reason, I think that's natural. But certainly, Wisconsin is a bit of a different story. They're so good."
If Minnesota did pull off the upset, it would be its first ranked win of the year. It would also give the Gophers the opportunity to match their conference win total from a year ago, something that seemed unlikely to say the least after an 0-5 start. What else? Well it would ease Minnesota one huge step closer to being in the NCAA tournament conversation. Finishing 8-10 would probably put the Gophers a couple of good Big Ten tournament wins away from a berth.
Hard to imagine we're even saying that, considering the vibe in January, but if the Gophers fall tonight, that talk will be abruptly stopped.
Five keys to the Gophers pulling off the upset over their rival:
Wisconsin must make mistakes. The Gophers won't be their border foe if the Badgers are operating on all cylinders. The Gophers aren't going to beat them on game planning. Wisconsin is so good -- the Badgers shoot well, score inside well, rebound well and don't turn the ball over. A few somethings need to go wrong. Kaminsky can't have the same type of 31-point career night as he did in the Badgers outing vs. Michigan State. Since Wisconsin is almost immune to being rushed by defenses, (the Badgers are No. 1 nationally in not turning over), some fluky miscues probably need to happen.
Get to the line. Another tenant of fundamental Wisconsin ball is not fouling. And the Badgers don't, sending opponents to the line at a rate than ranks first nationally (if you haven't noticed, the Badgers are first at a lot of things). But when the Gophers played in Madison on Feb. 21, they went to the line just once (and Carlos Morris missed the shot), the least opportunities an opponent has had vs. the Badgers this year. Minnesota will need to get more calls than that to pull out a win.
Fire away. One thing the Badgers AREN'T great at is three-point defense. Minnesota, meanwhile, has been somewhat hot and cold from beyond the arc -- the Gophers have shot nine three-point shots or more ten times and six or fewer ten times. If Andre Hollins, Charles Buggs, Joey King and Nate Mason can get it going from downtown early, the Gophers' chances look better.
Keep it close. Minnesota has nearly completed a couple of wild comebacks on Big Ten teams this season -- that seems to be a special Gopher talent, along with losing similarly massive leads. But that formula won't work with Wisconsin. Give the Badgers space and they will likely run away. Staying on their heels throughout is mandatory.
Another huge offensive game. The Gophers' defense, for the most part, looks better this season than a year ago. But asking Minnesota to hold off the country's No. 1 offense, according to kenpom.com is a tall task, and not very realistic. To overcome Wisconsin, the Gophers will need to match their intensity and production on the other end while getting a few key stops. That blueprint -- which included big nights from major scorers Carlos Morris, Andre Hollins, Mo Walker plus a clutch 17-point performance from Joey King and 12 points from DeAndre Mathieu -- worked against Michigan State and it could work again vs. Wisconsin. Such a hot, balanced offensive performance from Minnesota has been rare this year. Can the Gophers turn on the magic vs. Wisconsin, once again?