From a five game losing streak to an eight game winning streak, Minnesota is certainly one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten right now. Minnesota has averaged 82.1 points over its current winning streak and have won in a multitude of ways, including finding ways to win the close games they struggled to close out earlier in the season.
One of those close losses was a two-point overtime setback at home to Wisconsin. The Badgers haven’t been the same since, as their February struggles have carried over into March with a three game losing streak and the inability to solve their problems on both sides of the floor. Somehow, someway, the Badgers will need to be able to bring their “A” game to send seniors Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter, Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown out on a winning note in their final game inside the Kohl Center.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (22-8, 11-6 Big Ten) as they prepare to play Minnesota (23-7, 11-6).
LAY UP: CAN WISCONSIN GET PRODUCTION FROM ITS BENCH?
An inconsistent bunch over Big Ten play, Wisconsin’s five game streak of the bench chipping in at least 10 points came to a thud with a lowly four points against Iowa. If Wisconsin is going to have success against Minnesota, the Badgers need to receive bigger or more balanced contributions from the reserves.
When Wisconsin has been able to get production, D'Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson have been at the center of it, as the two are responsible for 58.1 percent (122 of 210) of Wisconsin’s bench scoring over Big Ten play. Even though they have carried half the burden, Trice and Iverson have been inconsistent, too, as they’ve averaged 5.8 and 3.9 points, respectively, over conference play.
There hasn’t been that eighth player that Greg Gard can consistently rely on. Jordan Hill, Brevin Pritzl, Charles Thomas and Alex Illikainen at times have been relied on but there hasn’t been that one set player. Pritzl was slowly becoming that third guy until an ankle injury suffered last week set him back. Hill’s minutes have also been inconsistent after not playing against Northwestern.
While Trice’s strong play has been able to help take pressure off of Bronson Koenig, the combination of Thomas and Illikainen haven’t been able to do the same for Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ. Illikainen averaged eight minutes over the first seven conference games but has only appeared in two of the last 10 games. Thomas has averaged 4.1 minutes over Big Ten play and didn’t play against Iowa after committing two fouls in two minutes against Michigan State.
As Wisconsin prepares to play its final stretch of the season, and the potential of not having a long layoff in between games, Gard is going to need Wisconsin’s bench to give him productive minutes when called on.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: DISRUPTING MINNESOTA’S BALANCE ON OFFENSE
One of the reasons why Minnesota has won its past eight games is the balanced scoring it has received from Nate Mason (19.3 points per game), Jordan Murphy (15.6 points per game), Amir Coffey (11.6 points per game), Dupree McBrayer (10.7 points per game) and Akeem Springs (10 points per game).
In particular Mason has been strong since being held to eight points (3-for-14) in the loss to Wisconsin with 10 straight games in double figures. Mason has struggled with the consistency of his shot over conference play but has shot above 40 percent from the field five times over Minnesota’s winning streak.
Zak Showalter did a good job of defending Mason in the first matchup, preventing him from getting into an offensive rhythm, but Mason still registered 10 assists to two turnovers to supplement the missing offense. That’s been a trend for Mason, who has averaged 4.8 assists over the last eight games to help Minnesota’s offense stay balanced.
Murphy has been one of the benefactors of Mason’s success, as he’s second to Mason in scoring over the Gophers win streak at 15.6 points per game and shooting above 53 percent from the field over the last seven games, not to mention registering six double-doubles. Hayes or Brown will get the chance of defending Murphy, but Hayes could see the bulk of the time in trying to limit Murphy on the offensive end. Hayes will need to turn in a strong defensive performance, since it’s a strong bet Murphy will surpass the four points and one rebound he generated in the first match-up.
Wisconsin can’t afford to have any lapses on the defensive side, as they’ve shown to have a small margin for error with its sporadic play.
3-POINTER: CAN WISCONSIN HAVE SUCCESS ON THE OFFENSIVE GLASS?
With Wisconsin continuing to struggle with offensive consistency, the Badgers will need to be able to find a way to create a rhythm. One way Wisconsin can try and create an offensive flow against the Gophers is if they can generate offensive rebounds, as conference opponents have averaged 12.7 offensive rebounds against them.
Wisconsin collected nine offensive rebounds in the first match-up but also was able to shoot 50 percent from the field and 3-point range. The Gophers rarely allow opposing Big Ten teams to register games shooting at least 50 percent from the field. Minnesota’s defense allows opposing teams to shoot 41.2 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from three, both marks rank in the top two over conference play.
In order for Wisconsin to generate the offensive rebounds they need, the match-up to watch down low will be the Badgers against Murphy (6.5 defensive rebounds) and Reggie Lynch (4.2). Neutralize one or both of those players will give opportunities in the low post, especially if Happ can get the better of Lynch.
Happ was able to score consistently on Lynch and rack up the fouls against him. When the Gophers put him on the bench, Happ took advantage and finished with 28 points. Lynch has marginally improved in that department, fouling out of eight conference games this year but was not called for a one last weekend against Penn State. UW needs to get the ball into the post and put Lynch to the test.
The Badgers have registered at least 30 points down low in only two of the last five games, a one-time strength of the program that has turned into a weakness due to the inability to finish around the rim and settling for outside shots. If UW wants to turn its season around, the Badgers have to crash the glass, effectively box out and convert on second-chance opportunities. UW has averaged 13.2 second-chance points over the last five games, a number it has to at least reach to keep pace with the Gophers.