Wisconsin at Gophers men’s basketball

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Frontcourt battle – Probably not until their careers are over after this season can we truly appreciate what Jordan Murphy and Ethan Happ have accomplished as four-year frontcourt stars in the Big Ten. Murphy has 1,170 career rebounds, which is No. 2 in Big Ten history. Happ’s 1,102 rebounds are a Wisconsin record and rank fifth all-time in conference history ahead of former Michigan State star Draymond Green. They are the only two current players in college basketball with at least 1,500 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. Happ, a national player of the year candidate, is also became a triple-double treat as the only player in Division I basketball averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. The 6-foot-10 center has two triple-doubles this season, the only player in college hoops to achieve that. Murphy’s scoring numbers have declined from last season (16.8 to 14.9), but he’s still a monster on the glass. The 6-7 forward is tops in the Big Ten and fourth nationally with 11.8 rebounds per game, which includes highs of 21, 18 and 17 boards twice this season. Murphy has a chance Wednesday to prove that the Badgers aren’t his Kryptonite, because he averages just 9.2 points in five career games in the Border Battle. He has three games vs. Wisconsin scoring under double figures, including his worst game as a Gopher with four points and a career-low one rebound in 26 minutes in a loss in 2017 at the Barn. Happ outscored Murphy 17-5 in Madison earlier this season, but this could be the last matchup between them. So I’m guessing it will be worth the price of admission as the cliché goes.

Faster start – The Gophers haven’t looked like the same team since they lost by 27 points at Illinois on Jan. 16, but they have made a bad habit out of opening games slowly. The next game after being embarrassed in Champaign was surprisingly more of the same early to the dismay of the home crowd on Jan. 19. Penn State opened 20-10 midway through the first half. The Gophers trailed by eight at halftime and faced an 11-point deficit in the second half, but they fought back to squeak by the Nittany Lions in a one-point victory. Minnesota's last two games were also slower starts. Last week, the Illini led 9-5 in the first four minutes and had a halftime advantage in the rematch. Revenge eventually came for the Gophers, but they had to do so after again trailing at halftime at home. On Sunday, the Gophers were down 8-0 to begin the game at Purdue, but they battled back to take a halftime lead and go ahead 47-34 around the 14-minute mark of the second half. Things eventually fell apart after that, but a hot start will likely go a long way for the Gophers on Wednesday night to cool down a hot Wisconsin squad.

Finish defensive possessions – The Gophers had a chance to take a 15-point lead at Purdue on Sunday, but the Boilermakers grabbed two offensive rebounds to keep that ensuing possession alive. Matt Haarms scored on a layup to ignite a 21-2 run. Two minutes later, Minnesota gave up two more offensive rebounds on one possession leading to a foul and free throws. Midway through the second half, Haarms grabbed two more of his five offensive rebounds in the game and finished with a putback to tie it 47-47. Crashing the offensive boards helped get the Boilermakers on the scoreboard when they were ice cold from the outside. It was only a matter of time before a few jumpers started to fall. In the second half, Minnesota’s defense was pretty good on the perimeter, but it allowed Purdue to shoot 12-for-16 inside the arc. In the Jan. 3 win at Wisconsin, the Gophers made it tougher on the cold-shooting Badgers by limiting them to only two offensive rebounds in the game. Defensive rebounding could be a huge factor the second time around.

GAME INFO

Time: 8 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 2.5-point underdogs. Series: Minnesota leads the series 103-100, including last meeting 59-52 on Jan. 3, 2019 in Madison.TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (16-6, 6-5 in Big Ten)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 16.2

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 9.9

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 10.1

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.9

C- Eric Curry 6-9 So. 4.9

Key reserves– Daniel Oturu, C, 6-10, Fr., 10.7 ppg; Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.1 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.0 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 1.7 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 2.8 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 124-98 (7th season)  

Notable: Redshirt sophomore forward/center Eric Curry, who out for the first 12 games this season after knee surgery in October, played just 12 minutes in Sunday’s loss at Purdue due to calf soreness. Curry said he will play Wednesday against Wisconsin. The 6-9 Memphis native has started the last four games at center. He made his season debut with four points and six rebounds in 17 minutes Dec. 30 against Mount St. Mary’s off the bench. Last season, Curry sat out with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee. He was sidelined again this fall after an MRI revealed cartilage damage with his previously injured left knee swelling. But Curry finally was showing signs of getting comfortable with his knee after playing 10 games this year. Curry’s backup Daniel Oturu seems to be embracing his new role after starting the first 18 games. The 6-10 freshman had 19 points and nine rebounds Sunday against Purdue.

NO. 19 WISCONSIN BADGERS (16-6, 8-3) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-D’Mitrik Trice 6-0 Jr. 13.6

G-Brad Davison 6-3 So. 11.3

F-Khalil Iverson 6-5 Sr. 4.8

F-Nate Reuvers 6-10 So. 8.3

F-Ethan Happ 6-10 Sr. 18.5

Key reserves– Brevin Pritzl, G, 6-3, Jr., 4.7 ppg; Aleem Ford, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.3 ppg; Kobe King, G, 6-4, So., 4.4 ppg; Charles Thomas, F, 6-8, Sr., 2.2 ppg.

Coach: Greg Gard 73-42 (4th season)  

Notable: The Badgers rank first in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in three-point shooting percentage (40.3), which would be their best mark since 1991-92. Leading the way from beyond the arc are D’Mitrik Trice (45.2 percent), Brad Davison (45.2) and 6-10 Nate Reuvers (40.0). Trice and Davison rank fourth and five in the Big Ten, respectively. Surprisingly, Wisconsin shot just 5-for-22 from three in the Jan. 3 loss to Minnesota at the Kohl Center.

Fuller’s predictionGophers 74, Wisconsin 72. The Gophers did something right when they won last month in Madison for the first time since 2009. Maybe it was Amir Coffey’s 15 straight points in the first half that stunned the Badgers. Maybe it was first-year U assistant Rob Jeter’s scouting as a longtime former Bo Ryan assistant. Maybe it was mostly the Hack-a-Happ working to perfection at the end of the game. Whatever it was that worked the first time might be just enough to help Minnesota pull off the first season sweep over Wisconsin since the 2008-09 season.