The Gophers have not finished in the top five of the Big Ten since 2005, when they went 10-6 and tied Indiana for fourth place. The catalyst for that was Vincent Grier, a junior college transfer from Dixie State in Utah.
That scenario can be repeated again this winter, and with another junior college transfer — DeAndre Mathieu from Central Arizona — as the player who rallies the troops.
On Wednesday night, the Gophers lost Andre Hollins, the junior guard expected to be in the starring role for coach Richard Pitino’s first season. Hollins scored 12 seconds into the game and was injured in a collision with Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser.
This should have created a crisis for the home team, but it wasn’t even close to that. Mo Walker broke out after a long wait to be a relevant Big Ten player, and senior Austin Hollins came out of an offensive stupor to put together an outstanding second half.
And Mathieu, as he was when the Gophers upset ranked Ohio State last week, was the best player on the Barn’s raised floor.
That wasn’t the only similarity. The Buckeyes came to Minneapolis after starting the season 15-0 and left with a three-game losing streak. The Badgers came to Minneapolis after starting the season 16-0 and left with a three-game losing streak.
The contrast was in the ease with which Wisconsin was dispatched. The Gophers pulled away late against Ohio State and won by 10. On Wednesday, the outcome was clear through the second half and the final was 81-68 for the Gophers.
The Gophers are now 4-3 in the Big Ten. The next four games are at Nebraska and Purdue and at home against Northwestern and Indiana. If Wednesday’s effort can become the norm, Pitino’s club will do better than a 2-2 split and sit solidly in the first division when the rematch takes place Feb. 13 at Wisconsin.
The Gophers demonstrated on Wednesday that this can be accomplished, no matter the result of the MRI on Andre Hollins’ left ankle.
The demonstration started when Pitino hit the bull’s-eye with a matchup strategy early on:
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin’s 7-foot junior, went out with his second foul at 17:21 of the first. When the first TV timeout arrived two minutes later, Pitino sent Walker in the game and ordered Mo’s mates to feed the post.
“Coach told us they didn’t have the size to match Mo and to go to him,’’ Mathieu said. “I didn’t ever see Mo like that before. He wasn’t going to be stopped.’’
Walker scored 12 straight points within a foot of the rim. He beat up Nigel Hayes, and then beat up freshman Vitto Brown. For a couple of minutes, the full house of customers inside the Barn didn’t seem to believe what was taking place, and then they started rumbling from way back in the cheap seats:
“Get it to him. Get the ball to Mo.’’
The 6-foot-10 redshirt junior had 14 points in the first half and the Gophers led 34-28. The Gophers had 14 field goals, and 11 were inside 5 feet of the basket.
The message in the locker room at halftime seemed to be, “Thanks much, Mr. Walker. The guards can take it from here.’’
Mathieu was 6-for-10, Austin Hollins was 5-for-6 and Malik Smith was 3-for-3 in the second half. They did this more by driving through an astoundingly porous Wisconsin defense.
Oh, yeah — the Gophers had one second-half turnover, and that was Mathieu’s only one of the night.