Wisconsin-Minnesota: Border Battle Reignited

Sam OlesonCorrespondent IFebruary 15, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 13:  Lawrence Westbrook #20 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers attempts a shot against the Michigan State Spartans during the second round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 13, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It doesn't quite have the intensity of their football or hockey rivalries, but when Wisconsin and Minnesota face off in basketball, you know both teams are going to leave it all on the floor.

Thursday night at "The Barn" will be no different.

Coming off a dominating win over Indiana that seemingly righted the Badger ship after a home loss to Illinois, Wisconsin needs this game if it hopes to stay in the Big Ten title race.

A victory over the Gophers would give the Badgers their 10th conference win of the year, their 20th win overall, and avenge an overtime loss at home to Minnesota last year. But most importantly, they would keep pace in the Big Ten. A loss could gravely injure their chances at a conference championship.

For Minnesota, who, at 14-10, are in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament, they need this game if they want any shot at making the Big Dance. With their only real quality win coming against Ohio State in early January, the Gophers need résumé boosters, of which this game is certainly one.

Luckily for Wisconsin, Minnesota is in a bit of a slump. They've lost two straight games and six of their last eight. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is coming off probably their most complete start-to-finish blowout in years.

However, the keys to the game are still the same for Bucky. Hit outside shots. Play stout defense against a good offensive team. Get to the rim and charity stripe.

Although hitting threes and jump shots has been the key to success for Wisconsin this year, at this point in the year, getting to the rim may be the most important concept for the Badgers to work on.

We all know Wisconsin loves the three-ball. It's what wins them games and what has largely put them in the position they are now. But as evidenced in their loss to Illinois, it can also be their downfall.

Now, when Jason Bohannon hits seven treys like he did against Indiana, the Badgers are virtually unbeatable. But when the shots stop falling, and without a real inside, post-up presence, the Badger guards may need to drive to the basket.

We know they can do it. Trevon Hughes and Jordan Taylor are both adept at taking it to the hoop and either making the shot or drawing contact, but they need to start doing it more often. That said, if Wisconsin is making all its three-pointers, by all means keep the ball outside. But that isn't going to happen every game.

Minnesota is in no way a great defensive team, and Wisconsin should try to make use of all its means of point production in preparation for postseason play.

As far as defending the U, this task will probably be a little tougher than against the Hoosiers. Minnesota averages almost 75 points a contest and has a pair of guards that can really light it up.

Senior guard Lawrence Westbrook, who averages 13.4 points a game, stands at only six feet tall, but you wouldn't know it by his play. He is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc and is great at taking the ball to the hoop. Badger fans should certainly have a good understanding of what Westbrook can do, seeing as he almost singlehandedly led the Gophers to victory last January in Madison.

Minnesota's other dynamic guard, Blake Hoffarber, is simply one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, if not the nation.

Averaging almost 12 points a game, Hoffarber shoots the three-ball at a 50 percent clip. He can shoot it from anywhere on the floor, and Wisconsin needs to make sure to guard him tightly.

However, that's not all. Forward Damian Johnson (10 pts/game), guard Devoe Joseph (8.5 pts/game), and center Ralph Sampson III (8.2 pts/game) all could hurt Wisconsin offensively—thus the Badgers will have to play one of their better defensive games of the year.

Plus, playing in Minneapolis is no easy task in itself. "The Barn" is one of the oldest, and rowdiest arenas in the Big Ten, and the Gophers typically play much better at home than on the road. Of Minnesota's 14 wins this year, 11 of them have come at home, and their only two losses were by eight to Michigan and just one point to Michigan State.

All signs point to a great game. Conference championship hopes in the balance. NCAA Tournament chances on the line.

Just add in a Border Battle rivalry, mix, and stir.