In a way, Thursday's Border Battle is a game that is set apart from the rest of the schedule.

On paper, the matchup between the Gophers and Badgers Thursday night at Williams Arena doesn't mean much for either team.

Wisconsin has already locked up an NCAA tournament bid. Minnesota's rival hopes to earn a high seed and make a late run at a Big Ten title. But they don't need a victory.

Unlike last year, they'll meet the Gophers during one of their worst stretches under Tubby Smith. The Gophers have lost seven of their last 10 games. Unless they can win out and seize one or two key wins in the Big Ten tournament, they'll end up in the NIT.

These two teams are in two completely different places at this point in the season. But the Gophers need a confidence boost as much as they need a win. And an upset would accomplish both.

This isn't a Gophers team that's failed in every area of the game. But their problems have become habitual.

The late-game collapses, poor perimeter defense, inconsistent interior defense and crucial turnovers have cost the Gophers eight single-digit losses.

Just imagine how much different things would be right now if the Gophers had beaten Portland, Miami, Michigan State (twice), Indiana, Texas A&M, Northwestern and Michigan. Let's say they'd gone 4-4 against those teams. Their NCAA tournament hopes would be much different right now.

But all of that's old news. The Gophers haven't lived up to expectations.

An upset Thursday, however, would interrupt a season filled with challenges and give the Gophers and their supporters reason to smile. Seniors Lawrence Westbrook, Damian Johnson and Devron Bostick would end their careers with three straight victories over the Badgers.

In spite of Bo Ryan's ability to recruit some of Minnesota's best and maintain success year-after-year, Smith would have an edge in the series.

Perhaps a victory would allow the Gophers to retain a chunk of their competitive dignity on their way to the NIT.

And if there's a miracle finish in the making, then a Thursday victory would have to start it.

But how will the Gophers pull off a win against the No. 14 Badgers? Good question. They'll need tenacity and execution, a crucial combination they've failed to secure for the majority of the season.

I believe a new lineup with Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III might hurt Minnesota's offense. The Gophers have won when their perimeter guys have played well.

I also think the team has to get up and down the floor. They've struggled with that recently. Will they have more problems in transition with Iverson in there? Maybe.

But I can't look at this game via stats and personnel alone.

This could be Minnesota's last shot to salvage its season.

And I expect the Gophers to play that way. Thursday's game should be filled with emotion.

I expect to see ...

Smith stomping up and down the sideline. Lawrence Westbrook complaining when he's pulled. Johnson protesting fouls. Iverson committing smart but hard fouls like an enforcer in the paint. Sampson dunking and hanging on the rim for effect. The crowd responding to every play like it's Minnesota's last.

Thursday's matchup against the Badgers means a lot for the program. And the Gophers can prove to themselves and everyone else that they still have some fight left with their performance against the Badgers.

Win or lose, they can't collapse. They have to play with a fire they've lacked in recent weeks.

But will they? 

Prediction: Wisconsin 62, Minnesota 63

 

 

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Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson might start against the Badgers

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Gophers can't look past the Hoosiers