Once stuck in a 14 game losing streak, including dropping its first 13 Big Ten games, the only ray of sunshine on Minnesota’s miserable 2015-16 season was a shocking home upset over No.6 Maryland. And while the Gophers have won two of their last three games, Minnesota is razor thin on depth with head coach Richard Pitino suspending three players for the rest of the season for allegedly tweeting out adult content they were engaged in.
Despite the losing streak, Minnesota was losing by an average of only 11 points per game and have been in even closer games at home. Having won its last two home games, Minnesota has only lost once at home by double digits (25 to Northwestern) and lost the other five conference home games by 6.4 points.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (19-10, 11-5 Big Ten) in order to win the lone regular season against Minnesota (8-20, 2-14).
Lay Up: Forcing Minnesota into miscues
Over the second half of the Big Ten season, Wisconsin’s defense has done a better job of taking away opponent’s strengths, forcing them to manufacture offense in different ways. An example is Sunday’s win over Michigan, limiting the Wolverines – a program making 10 3-pointers per game – to only five made perimeter shots.
Part of the reason Wisconsin has improved its defensive numbers is the Badgers’ ability to generate turnovers. Wisconsin’s defense has forced its opponents into making double-digit turnovers in each of the last 10 games, a streak that has totaled 124 turnovers in all. Sixty-three of those miscues have come off steals, including 28 by redshirt freshman Ethan Happ.
Minnesota ranks fourth in turnover margin in the Big Ten (plus-1.4) and are tied with Wisconsin for fifth in the conference with 11.1 turnovers. At Williams Arena, Minnesota’s turnovers per game have dropped to 10.5 in conference play. But playing with an inexperienced lineup Sunday, the Gophers tied its conference season high with 17 miscues in the loss at Illinois. Despite averaging 14 turnovers the last three games, the Gophers strangely committed only four turnovers against Indiana and Michigan State – two of the best teams in the conference – earlier this year. Needless to say, Wisconsin won’t be able to take anything for granted.
In addition to forcing turnovers, Wisconsin’s defense has stayed disciplined, picking spots when and when not to gamble and limited fouling. Over the last five games, Wisconsin has averaged 14.4 team fouls a game, with the highest being 20 against Iowa. If Wisconsin can continue aggressive defending without fouling, the Badgers have a chance to continuing their trend of turning turnovers into points, as UW is averaging 13.5 off team turnovers the last nine games.
Mid-Range Jumper: Containing Jordan Murphy
With leading-scorer Nate Mason (13.8 ppg) suspended, along with Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer, for the remainder of the season, Murphy will be the one being counted on to carry the offense. He handled that role Sunday during the first game of the suspension, leading the Gophers with 22 points on 10-for-21 shooting for his sixth straight game in double figures.
The true freshman has put together a solid first season for the Gophers, as he is second on the team in scoring with Joey King (11.8 ppg) and is shooting 49.6 percent from the field. The Illinois game extends a pretty good run for Murphy, who has been able to find himself in an offensive rhythm over the last three outings with a 19.3 points per game average. In addition to shooting above 47 percent over the last two games, Murphy has registered three consecutive double-doubles to give him nine on the season.
Murphy’s 8.1 rebounds a game rank fourth in the Big Ten and his 2.9 offensive rebounds are third in the conference. Whether it is Nigel Hayes or Happ who defend Murphy, they can’t let him get the better position when a shot goes up or simply out hustle either of them for a loose ball.
Wisconsin has done well for the most part limiting second-chance opportunities and making the necessary correction. After the Badgers saw Iowa grab 20 offensive rebounds, Wisconsin held Michigan to three, the fewest UW has allowed all year. Over Wisconsin’s last five games, only Iowa scored double-digit second-chance points.
3-Pointer: Can Wisconsin take advantage of Minnesota’s defense?
Minnesota allows teams to score 74 points a game, shoot 44.7 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three, ranking 12th in the conference in each category. Although Wisconsin has had its offensive struggles at times this year, the Badgers are starting to hit their stride by shooting 46.9 percent over the last three games.
In order to get off to a strong start against Minnesota, Wisconsin will need to pick up where they left off against Michigan, which is establishing the post. The Badgers weren’t able to start breaking through against the Wolverines until they got the ball in the paint, resulting in seven straight layups, numerous high percentage shots and a run that effectively blew the game wide open.
Following a similar game plan will be advantageous for Wisconsin, even though Minnesota has given up 26.8 points in the paint over the last five games. Like Michigan, Minnesota doesn’t block many shots (only 3.8 per game) and have nobody averaging over 1.2 blocks per game. Murphy has registered a block in four of the last five Minnesota games but the combination between Hayes and Happ being physical when receiving entry passes down low should allow them to find success if they remain aggressive. Murphy has dealt with foul trouble during conference play, fouling out three times and committing four fouls nine times, including six of the last seven games.
Wisconsin will likely try and have Hayes goes against Murphy to see if they can keep that trend going. If Hayes, who has attempted 218 free throws this season, can find ways of getting Murphy to the bench with foul trouble, it should help open up the post more for Wisconsin’s offense to establish a rhythm and take advantage.