Meet me in Minnesota?

The Twin Cities are a sporting panacea for the Badgers

PHILADELPHIA — The Twin Cities are the land of promise for University of Wisconsin athletics this weekend.

Yes, St. Paul and Minneapolis, home to many a state of Wisconsin rival, could become a playground for Badger fans.

This weekend the men's hockey team is trying to win a championship there, while the women's hockey team and the men's basketball team are making their best effort to advance to postseason events in Minneapolis next weekend.

The ninth-seeded Badger men's basketball team plays at the Wachovia Center here Friday at 11:30 a.m. Central in an NCAA Tournament first-round affair. A win over eighth-seeded Arizona, and a subsequent win Sunday, would propel UW to a Minnesota Regional semifinal at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, March 24.

Roughly three hours after tip-off at the Wachovia Center Friday, the puck drops at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the men's hockey team's Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament semifinal with North Dakota. Win that one, and the Badgers will advance to face either Minnesota or St. Cloud State in the league playoff championship game.

At 7 p.m. Saturday the women's hockey team will face off with Mercyhurst in an NCAA Tournament quarterfinal at Capital Ice Arena in Middleton, Wis. A win there and Mark Johnson's team will earn a slot in next weekend's Frozen Four at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

If all goes according to plan for the cardinal and white, the Twin Cities will be the center of the sporting world.

The three teams reached this juncture in quite different fashions.

The men's hockey team was the toast of college hockey for the first half of the season, clearly the nation's best team. But the Badgers slipped and skidded after goalie Brian Elliott went down with a knee injury, then struggled upon his return. UW's national title aspirations seemed to be barreling off course until two weekends ago, when Elliott found his groove again. The Badgers (25-9-3) head into Friday's matchup with a four-game winning streak.

The men's basketball team (19-11) has been down and up and down again since Jan. 18, the date of the first game the squad played without Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma, who are academically ineligible. Wisconsin is 5-9 since a 14-2 start. A stretch of five losses in six games was followed by three straight wins, which was followed by the current span of four losses in five games. The Badgers chances of reaching Minneapolis are not great. Their first-round matchup with the Wildcats will be tough, and an even tougher group of Wildcats likely awaits: No. 1 seed Villanova. Wisconsin, though, has been a good NCAA Tournament team under coach Bo Ryan and the Badgers have to be due for some hot shooting, don't they?

The women's hockey team has been dominant all season long. The Badgers, who earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAAs, are an incredible 33-4-1 this season.

On Feb. 4 UW lost 1-0 to St. Cloud State and the sterling play of goaltender Lauri St. Jacques. That snapped Wisconsin's 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1) and 10-game winning streak, and was its first loss since Nov. 27. After losing to the Huskies, the Badgers lost again six days later to Minnesota. But they turned around and beat the Gophers 3-1 Feb. 11 to begin the team's current nine-game winning streak.

Last weekend, up in the Twin Cities, of course, UW dismantled St. Cloud 9-0 in the WCHA tournament semifinals, then beat Minnesota 4-1 to win the league tournament championship convincingly.

Mercyhurst is a challenging foe, but the Badgers are hosting Saturday's game and are playing at an extremely high level.

Will the Badgers' all-encompassing Minnesota dreams come to fruition? Quite possibly.

The men's basketball team will have its work cut out for itself trying to get past Arizona Friday. But it would not be a particular shock to see the Badgers take a U-turn, begin hitting shots and end up in the Sweet Sixteen.

The men's hockey team is showing signs of returning to its pre-Elliott-injury-form. North Dakota is on a roll too, though, St. Cloud can be tough and the Gophers are clearly playing the best hockey in the nation right now. This is a daunting tournament, but the Badgers certainly have a chance, especially with Elliott playing well in net. The real question: Will success in Minnesota pave the way to a national title in Milwaukee in a few weeks?

The women's hockey team will face challenges along the way, such as a potential rematch with No. 1 New Hampshire next weekend in the Twin Cities (UW's Nov. 27 loss was at UNH). But the feeling here is that Johnson's crew, led by Patty Kazmaier finalist Sara Bauer and WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Bobbi-Jo Slusar, will be hoisting a national championship trophy March 26 at Mariucci.

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