Backyard Brawlers

With Wisconsin boasting five Minnesota native on its roster, the border battle's stop in Minneapolis is always going to be a fun homecoming for some and a bitter reminder for others of UW's stellar recruiting in Minnesota's own backyard.

MINNEAPOLIS – With the season coming down to the final weeks and wins just as important now than ever, the members of the Wisconsin basketball team maintain that this final road trip is just the next game on the schedule.

For the five Minnesota natives on the roster, including freshman point guard Jordan Taylor, that is easier said than done.

Taylor is one of key factors that had made this border rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota so intense over the years, as the point guard is one of many past and current Badgers to decline a scholarship offer from the home state Gophers in order to go to a neighboring school that is at the head of the class.

"Academically, the business school is one of the top schools in the country and athletically, Wisconsin is one of the best programs in the country," Taylor said of his reasoning for picking Wisconsin. "It's got great coaches that can really develop your game and a great environment with the Kohl Center being packed every game."

When Taylor makes his first return visit to Minnesota when the Badgers (18-10, 9-7 Big Ten) take on Minnesota (20-8, 8-8 Big Ten) Wednesday night, he'll be bringing a skill set that is much improved from when he was crowned the state's Mr. Basketball in 2008.

Appeared in all 28 games this season and averaging the most minutes among freshmen (12.6 per game), Taylor has come in for incumbent point guard Trevon Hughes on more than one occasion and has successfully filled the void. In 16 Big Ten games, Taylor has turned the ball over only five times, posting a 13-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio that has been key for Wisconsin jumping into the to half of the conference race.

"I am trying to learn more and more every day and trying to get better every day," Taylor said. "We have great leaders on this team that are always helping other guys. I am just trying to get better as fast as possible."

Taylor (Bloomington) isn't the only Minnesota man to have provided immediate dividends for the Badgers so early in his career.

Once head coach Bo Ryan's first option off the bench, sophomore Jon Leuer (Long Lake), thanks to a tireless off-season workout to prepare his body, has started the last seven games for the Badgers and leads the Big Ten in scoring (9.2 ppg) among players with seven starts or less.

Senior Kevin Gullikson (Stillwater) has bounced back from a disappointing year to play in 22 games and provide a presence down in the post for the Badgers.

Freshman forward Jared Berggren (Princeton), who is redshirting this season, was ranked the 15th-best center in the country by Scout.com and has a shooting touch to go along with his 6-foot-10 frame.

Gullikson, Leuer and Taylor declined scholarship offers from then-Minnesota head coach Dan Monson, choosing instead to play in a program that has a chance to compete on a national level every season.

"That's ultimately everybody's goal – to be competitive and have a chance to play for a championship," Leuer said. "If that's not your goal in college basketball, then you shouldn't be playing. I feel like we have a chance to do that here and that was one of the reasons that brought me here."

At the time, it was an easy decision on which school was more competitive, as the Gophers finished above .500 in conference play only twice in Monson's seven-plus seasons.

Enter Tubby Smith, who surprised many a people by leaving Kentucky and taking over the Minnesota rebuilding project. In his first season, Smith improved the Gophers win total by 11 games and a NIT appearance. This season, Smith has the Gophers on the cusp of making their first NCAA Tournament since 2005.

At the same time, Smith is attempting to build a fence around his state much like Ryan has done to Wisconsin. While Wisconsin was able to land a verbal commitment from forward Mike Bruesewitz (Mendota Heights), Smith kept forwards Royce White and Rodney Williams – two of Minnesota's top recruits – in state next season.

"You're always going against the university or the state school in the state, no matter where you go," said associate head coach Greg Gard, who played a big role in recruiting Leuer, Taylor, Berggren and Bruesewitz. "He's reenergizing the school and the program, but we have a good product to sell.

"We've found some good players that fit our system and we've been fortunate that those players that have decided to come here have had very good success."

One of those players is Taylor, who wanted to play and learn under Ryan because, "He's a general. He's the head of anything. Nobody messes with him."

With Wisconsin and Minnesota still having work to do in order to get into the NCAA Tournament, the recruiting rivalry and the border battle all means nothing is your team can't back it up on the court.

"Talk really means nothing," Taylor said. "Whether we play at the Kohl or at the Barn, we've got to go out, prove and earn it."


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