Gophers at Wisconsin
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
HAMPERING HAPP– Wisconsin hasn’t been able to provide a consistent outside shooting threat to keep opposing defenses from collapsing on Ethan Happ. The Badgers are shooting 28 percent from three-point range in the last 10 games. Happ, who finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in a 78-76 overtime win at Minnesota on Jan. 21, has scored under double figures four times in the last seven games. The 6-foot-10 sophomore center is one of the best low-post scorers in college basketball, but even he needs help, especially against Minnesota’s shot-blocking king Reggie Lynch, who has 17 blocks in the last two games. Happ and Lynch are the two top candidates for Big Ten defensive player of the year.
MASON & MURPHY– In the last meeting with Wisconsin, Minnesota’s captains Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy combined for arguably their worst game in Big Ten play. Mason shot 3-for-14 from the field. Murphy finished with just four points and a career-low one rebound in 26 minutes. Mason broke out of a slump with 21 points in the next game at Ohio State. But Murphy’s struggles lasted until he had six straight games scoring under double figures. But Murphy’s found his groove averaging 17.3 points and 13.7 rebounds in the last seven games. Mason has played like arguably the best guard in the Big Ten in his last 10 games, averaging 19 points, nearly five rebounds and four assists. How Mason and Murphy play Sunday will determine if Minnesota can win its ninth straight game.
SPRINGS’ BACK– The only player on the Gophers’ roster with a victory against Wisconsin during his career is senior guard Akeem Springs. But Springs defeated the Badgers last year as a starter for Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Springs joined Wisconsin’s rival as a graduate transfer this season. The 6-foot-4 Illinois native continued his individual success against the Badgers this season. In his first Big Ten start, Springs had 16 points, including a three-pointer to send the game into overtime. On Senior Night Thursday, Springs only scored three points on 1-for-6 shooting in 19 minutes. He was limited with back soreness, but the Gophers hope that Springs will be 100 percent healthy for Sunday’s game.
Time: 5 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Kohl Center. Line: Wisconsin by 8. Series: Minnesota leads 102-98; Wisconsin won last meeting 78-76 Jan. 21, 2017 in Minneapolis. TV: BTN. Online/Live video: BTN2go Radio: 1500ESPN.
MINNESOTA (23-7, 11-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 15.4
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 12.0
G-Akeem Springs 6-4 Sr. 9.9
F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 So. 11.3
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.3
Key reserves– Dupree McBrayer, G, 6-5, So., 11.0 ppg; Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 5.7 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 1.8 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.8 ppg
Coach: Richard Pitino 92-72 (5th season)
Notable: The Gophers haven’t ended the regular season against Wisconsin since the 1996-97 Final Four season. Clem Haskins’ team 20 years ago rolled through the Big Ten with 12 straight wins, but Minnesota fell 66-65 at Wisconsin to end the streak. The Gophers eight-game winning streak is the longest since 1997, but they are trying to avoid the same fate as that team. Richard Pitino has only beaten Wisconsin once in his first game in the Border Battle in 2013-14 at home. The last Minnesota win at the Kohl Center was Jan. 15, 2009 behind Lawrence Westbrook’s 29 points in a 78-74 overtime victory. Westbrook hit a three-pointer to send the game into the extra period.
WISCONSIN (22-8, 11-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Zak Showalter 6-3 Sr. 8.0
G-Bronson Koenig 6-3 Sr. 14.1
F-Nigel Hayes 6-8 Sr. 13.5
F-Vitto Brown 6-8 Sr. 6.8
C-Ethan Happ 6-10 So. 14.0
Key reserves–Khalil Iverson, F, 6-5, So., 3.9 ppg; D’Mitrik Trice, G, 6-0, Fr., 5.8 ppg; Brevin Pritzl, G, 6-3, RS-Fr., 2.2 ppg; Charles Thomas, F, 6-8, So., 2.3 ppg; Alex Illikainen, F, 6-8, So., 1.5 ppg; Jordan Hill, G, 6-4, Jr., 1.6 ppg.
Coach: Greg Gard 37-16 (2nd season)
Notable: The Badgers are losers of five of their last six games this season. But they have won 11 of the last 12 games against Minnesota, including six in a row. The last Wisconsin loss in the series was 81-68 in Minneapolis on Jan. 22, 2014. Wisconsin second-year coach Greg Gard is 2-0 against Pitino. But the longtime assistant to Bo Ryan knows the state of Minnesota all too well. Gard was instrumental in recruiting several top Minnesotans over the years, including Kamron Taylor, Jordan Taylor, Jon Leuer and Jared Berggren. Gard’s highly-rated 2017 class features Lakeville North’s Nathan Reuvers and Maple Grove’s Brad Davison.
Fuller’s prediction (26-4 picks record): Wisconsin 78, Gophers 70. The Gophers haven’t lost a game since Jan. 28 against Maryland at home. The U's longest Big Ten winning streak in two decades has solidified the program an NCAA tournament berth and energized a frustrated fan base from last season. But Minnesota still has to get the thorn out of its side when it comes to beating Wisconsin. No players on the current roster other than Springs know what it’s like to win against the Badgers. This might not be the year it happens. But one loss won’t derail Minnesota’s confidence going into the postseason. A loss might take away the chance to be a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. But Pitino's team still gets a No. 4 seed and the double-bye to open conference tournament play Friday in Washington D.C.