Back in early November, when the college basketball season was in its infancy, we wrote a post wondering if this is finally the year the Gophers would be better than the Badgers in the Big Ten men's basketball standings. A bit of research had led us to a shocking fact: Not since 1997-98, when Minnesota was a paltry 6-10 but Wisconsin was a worse 3-13, had the Gophers topped the Badgers in conference play.
Part of this is because Wisconsin has been so consistently good under Bo Ryan. Per research by e-mailer Jamie: "By my math, in the 10 seasons from 2003-2012, only seven major conference programs had a winning record in conference every year. For our purposes, .500 is a winning record. ... If you don't count .500 as a "winning" record, this list is two: Wisconsin and Kansas."
This year, however, looked to be different. Tubby Smith had a veteran team with a bunch of carryover starters, while the Badgers lost Jordan Taylor and were struggling with health issues. Through non-conference play, the Gophers certainly looked to have the upper hand, going 12-1 while Wisconsin struggled with some bad losses.
If you look at both rosters -- at least each starting five -- in the 2012-13 season, we don't think there is much argument (even from rational Badgers fans) that there is more natural talent on Minnesota's side. But here we stand going into Thursday night, with the Badgers already having secured a one-point, classic Ryan victory over the Gophers in Madison: Wisconsin is somehow 8-3 in Big Ten play while Smith's Gophers are 5-6.
Catching Wisconsin in the standings now seems quite unlikely. Thursday night's rematch at the Barn now takes on a different tint: the most important game Smith has coached here.
A victory would put the Gophers back to .500 in the conference, go down as another quality win, and solidify what is already pretty solid ground for, at least, an NCAA tournament bid. The Gophers are still waaaay up there in the RPI at No. 13 thanks to a No. 3 in the country strength of schedule. Beat Wisconsin, finish at least .500 in the Big Ten, win at least a game in the Big Ten tourney, and something like a No. 6 seed -- which comes with a good chance to win an NCAA tourney game and at least a puncher's chance at making the Sweet 16 -- is possible.
A loss, however, would be Minnesota's third consecutive setback and would drop them to 5-7 with road games against Iowa (better than its record), Ohio State (a tough, ranked team) and a home game against Indiana (one of the best teams in the country) looming among the next three. It's not hard to see a streak becoming a tailspin, and a nosediving RPI turning into RIP for a tourney bid -- and perhaps Smith's coaching tenure.
That this critical game comes against a rival that has symbolized squeezing every win out of every season ... well, that makes it all the better. It's not just a game with no love lost on Valentine's Day. In a way, it could be seen as Judgment Day for the season and the program.