Men's hoops: Still thinking big

Badgers are not ready to give up on Big Ten championship hopes

MADISON—Answering questions from the media following practice Friday, University of Wisconsin guard Kammron Taylor wandered onto tangents a couple of times. There was a purpose, however, to the manner in which he drifted off course.

After a disappointing loss at Northwestern Thursday night, the Badgers' goal remains the same: win a Big Ten championship. Taylor, whether he was asked directly about the league title race or not, firmly believes the Badgers are still very much alive in the title hunt.

"I definitely don't think we're out of it," he said. "I know some things have to happen for us to still win it but you never know."

The Badgers (8-5 Big Ten, 18-8 overall) enter Sunday's matchup with visiting Minnesota (5-8, 14-10) just a game-and-a-half behind first-place Ohio State (10-4, 21-4), and can pull within a game with a win over the Gophers.

Wisconsin's last two contests, however, are on the road against two of the league's best teams: Michigan State (7-6, 19-8) and Iowa (9-5, 20-8). After losing at Illinois (9-5, 23-5) Saturday, the Hawkeyes and Illini are tied for second place.

With those two daunting road games in mind, junior forward Alando Tucker framed Sunday's affair as effectively a must-win for Wisconsin.

"We let Northwestern slip away, but we have to get this game because finishing off the last two at Michigan State and Iowa, that's going to be tough," Tucker said. "So we need this game. We need to win this game, and actually do it in a good manner… We need to actually make a statement out there in order to build some confidence going into the Michigan State and Iowa games."

Ohio State's last two games are at Northwestern Wednesday and versus Purdue next Sunday. If OSU loses one of two, UW can claim a share of the title by winning its last three games.

"I was talking about it today before we went out to practice," Taylor said. "Don't keep our heads down. We're still in the hunt of a Big Ten championship. Certain things have to happen for that to happen but we just have to take care of our business a game at a time and hopefully some other things break down with the teams that are in the lead."

Wisconsin did not do itself any favors with its 62-51 loss in Evanston, Ill., Thursday.

Now, after struggling against NU's trapping 1-3-1 zone, along comes Minnesota. The Badgers edged the Gophers, 64-62, in Minneapolis early in the conference season, a game UW survived despite a season-worst 22 turnovers.

"I think they got us out of our gameplan," said Taylor, who had seven giveaways in that game. "They got us trying to rush things. We weren't taking our time. Once we slowed ourselves down, then our shots started falling and we started getting better looks."

The Badgers have committed the fewest turnovers of any team in the Big Ten—so what the Gophers exploited has not been an endemic problem. But UW will certainly need to play a cleaner game this time around.

"It was early in the season," Taylor said. "We learned from that and so I think we'll really be ready for the pressure they are going to bring Sunday."

The Gophers lost their first six Big Ten games but have since planted themselves firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Minnesota has won five of its last seven conference games, including impressive home wins over Michigan State and Iowa. A win at Wisconsin would do wonders for the Gophers' RPI, currently No. 58 in the nation. The Badgers are No. 13 in the RPI.

With the combination of postseason aspirations and the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, Sunday's game should be intense.

"We're fighting for our postseason lives too," Taylor said, "because we want a good seed… in the NCAA Tournament and we want a good seed in the Big Ten Tournament. It's not just them fighting for their hopes for the tournament. We're doing the same thing.

"And we're still in position to try and win a Big Ten championship. So it's going to be a tough game."

What: Wisconsin (18-8 overall, 8-5 Big Ten) versus Minnesota (14-10, 5-8)
When: Sunday, Feb. 26 at 1:04 p.m.
Site: Kohl Center (17,142) in Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Televised live on ESPN Plus (WISC in Madison, WMLW in Milwaukee and WKBT in Eau Claire) and broadcast live on the Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series notes: Minnesota leads the all-time series 97-83, but the Badgers hold a 54-32 edge in Madison and have won eight of the past nine games between the teams overall. Wisconsin topped Minnesota 64-62 in Minneapolis Jan. 10… the Badgers have won nine straight over Minnesota at home.

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