It’s senior day in Madison where they will honor the highly successful group of Zak Showalter, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Vitto Brown. Wisconsin is 22-8 on the year with a Big Ten record of 11-6. The Badgers have lost five of their last six games but apparently the odds makers feel they will be motivated as Wisconsin (losers of five of six which needs to be pointed out again) is an eight point favorite over Minnesota who has won eight in a row.
With Maryland beating Michigan State yesterday Minnesota was assured of a double bye into the Friday games which means a top four finish in the league at least. The Gophers, picked 12th or 13th in the preseason mags, are playing for second place in the Big Ten (Wisconsin was picked preseason number one but will be fighting to stay out of fourth today). The winner of today’s game will be in second place in the Big Ten, the loser in fourth place.
Minnesota Head Coach Richard Pitino and players Dupree McBrayer and Reggie Lynch all expressed their excitement for today’s game with the media yesterday. It’s being talked about by students all over campus and Minnesota wants to avenge their 78-76 earlier season loss when Minnesota gave up a double figure lead at home.
The 78-76 overtime game will be remembered for one major thing: Reggie Lynch was great early holding Ethan Happ to two scores in the first half (with four scores of his own and five blocks), but then Happ went off for a 25 point second half leading to his dominating 29 point, 12 rebounds, 6 assist, and 5 block game. Reggie fouled out and played only 20 minutes while Happ played 38 minutes with two fouls dominating every player Minnesota threw at him.
Minnesota’s initial problem was that Nigel Hayes scored the majority of his 21 points in the first half physically going at every Gopher. And late in the game Bronson Koenig knocked out three triples including a catch and hit off of two baseline screens that was the nail in the Gopher coffin.
The Gophers did a great job limiting Wisconsin’s three point weapons until late in the game. The Badgers completed 7 of 14 treys but most of their makes came late. At one point they were 3 of 10 from the arc until Happ took the pressure off of shooters with his inside scoring. Minnesota made 9 of 17 treys getting three from Amir Coffey, three from Akeem Springs, and two from Dupree McBrayer. Wisconsin on the board battle 36-33 while Minnesota forced 13 Badger turnovers (Gophers had ten).
The Badgers are coming off a two point loss that saw Iowa out-rebound them 37-27. The Hawkeyes overcame 19 turnovers because they were able to get a hand in the face of Badger shooters for a 6 of 23 Wisconsin performance at the arc. Koenig hit four treys for 19 points but Happ missed five of seven foul shots and Showalter missed five of seven treys.
PG. Nate Mason vs Bronson Koenig. The Badger level headed lead guard that put them over the top in the first game with his four threes against the red hot Mason who has been a brilliant playmaker leading to his All Big Ten first team consideration. Different players with Bronson being bigger and the better shooter with feet set but Mason quicker so tougher to deal with attacking lanes and turning the corner on screens. Mason has been the better player this year by a bit but it’s Bronson’s senior day. Edge: Push
SG. Akeem Springs vs Zak Showalter. Akeem is bigger and has been shooting a bit better percentage at the arc but Zak’s 37.5 percent is very good as well. Springs is being counted on for consistent three point production where as Showalter is the fourth option scorer. Both are hard working defenders and when it comes to the hard hat mentality they are the prominent figures of their teams. With Springs having a back injury you may see more of Dupree McBrayer today which is fine as Dupree is playing very well. Springs is a bit better than Showalter on the average but Akeem may not be 100 percent and it’s Zak’s senior day. Edge: Push
SF. Amir Coffey vs Nigel Hayes. This will be the initial match-up but Nigel will see a lot of Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry too when he slides down to play the four. No matter who it was, Coffey or Murphy, neither could deal with Hayes in the previous game. Nigel was too physical for them wherever on the floor and Hayes also did a great job of using screens to clear Coffey. Amir is an all Big Ten freshman and one of the league’s best passers (not to mention he scores a dozen a game). But Hayes has the edge as a physical veteran (when Hayes moves to the floor Minnesota has the edge in the Coffey vs Khalil Iverson match-up). Edge: Wisconsin.
PF. Jordan Murphy vs Vitto Brown. Let’s keep this short and sweet. Murphy has been incredible for the past 7-8 games with double-doubles in six of the last seven. He’s averaging nearly ten boards a game and has been Minnesota’s second best scoring option for the past three or four weeks. Brown is not having the same year he had last year and his minutes and shooting percentages are down. Edge: Minnesota.
C. Reggie Lynch vs Ethan Happ. Happ is the guy who is second to Caleb Swanigan in the Player of the Year talk. He destroyed Minnesota in the first game and is putting up 14 and nine a contest on average. Reggie Lynch is in the Defensive Player of the Year talk but Happ is also very good too. If Reggie stays out of foul trouble, as he has been doing, Minnesota should defend Happ fine. If not we will see Bakary Konate or Gopher small four men on an island against Happ. Minnesota needs Reggie on the floor. Edge: Wisconsin.
Bench G. Dupree McBrayer vs Jordan Hill/D’Mitrik Trice. Wisconsin will play Koenig, Showalter, Hayes, and Happ 30 plus minutes, they don’t use their bench as much as Minnesota does. But they will play three guards and then rotate Hayes, Brown, and Happ in the frontcourt. Therefore bench comparison is tough but either way, McBrayer and his double figure production every game will give the Gophers much more than Hill or Trice will (although Trice can shoot so you have to find him). Edge: Minnesota.
Bench F. Eric Curry vs Khalil Iverson. They won’t guard each other as Curry is a 4/5 and Iverson a three. Coffey and Michael Hurt will likely defend Iverson while Curry will defend Hayes and Brown. Both do a solid job off the bench making this even. Edge: Push
Bench C. Bakary Konate vs Charles Thomas. Konate will play about 10-12 minutes (if he plays more Minnesota is in trouble) as the hard working low post defender. Thomas has played in most games but sometimes will get the DNP. When Thomas does play it’s usually a short stint. Bakary will give more. Edge: this is more like an extra so we will just leave this be.
The general feel is that on senior day Wisconsin will come out and play very hard against their rivals and get a must needed win. The two seed is on the line. That is what people expect to happen because I think that’s what the past years have told us will happen. But it amazes me how many people are looking past a very big fact: Minnesota has one eight in a row and Wisconsin has lost five of six. Minnesota is also going to finish with an over .500 Big Ten road record regardless of what happens tonight.
Minnesota is playing better basketball than any Big Ten team and all of the motivation they are still getting (Pitino not in top ten for coach of the year, Gophers still not ranked, odds makers saying Wisconsin by eight) will have them playing with that edge once again. If Akeem is healthy and Reggie Lynch stays out of foul trouble Minnesota will win.
That’s a big IF though. Happ is a very big variable in the Lynch foul trouble issue. I see this as a one or two score game but it’s impossible to pick a winner until we see how the officials are calling the game and if Akeem is healthy. I’m going to say Gophers by two returning the favor.
Minnesota 76 Wisconsin 74.