Rivalry takes back seat to postseason versus Wisconsin

Bob Wothe

On Oct. 16, college basketball practices officially began at 12 a.m. all across the country, with many schools holding “Midnight Madness” extravaganzas for fans to meet the new team.

Minnesota men’s basketball coach Dan Monson, however, took his team to Brainerd, Minn., for that opening weekend, perhaps realizing that the 5-1 football team was the only thing on anyone’s mind in Minnesota.

Few would have suspected the basketball team’s meeting with Wisconsin on Saturday at Williams Arena would turn out to be more important than the football team’s Nov. 6 matchup with the Badgers at Camp

Randall.

Yet here they are.

“This is a really special game against Wisconsin,” senior captain Brent Lawson said. “If we can’t get up for this one, I don’t know what we’re here for.”

The Gophers (15-6, 5-3 Big Ten) will have the opportunity to pull a major upset on their home court and take over third place in the Big Ten against the 19th-ranked Badgers (15-4, 6-2).

The 11 a.m. game at Williams Arena is expected to be a sellout, as only partially-obstructed seats – approximately 900 of them according to a ticket office official – remained as of late Thursday morning.

In addition, Monson has proclaimed that fans should “paint the Barn gold” by wearing as much gold as possible to make sure there’s no confusion between allegiances.

“We’re pumped up for it,” senior Aaron Robinson said. “When all the fans are wearing your true colors, it makes it that much more amazing for us and intimidates the other team.”

But to pull an upset, the Gophers will need to count on more than just intimidation; Monson said they’ll need to play their absolute best basketball of the season.

“After the Michigan State game, I put three names on the board,” Monson said of the 69-55 loss Jan. 22 at Williams Arena. “Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin – the league separates there. Those three are at an elite level right now, and the rest of us are trying to get to that level and that consistency.”

The Gophers haven’t beaten the Badgers since a win at Williams Arena on Jan. 6, 2001 – Monson’s only win over the Badgers anywhere.

Wisconsin won both meetings last year by 14 points each.

But the Badgers have since lost point guard Devin Harris to the NBA, and leading scorer Alando Tucker has missed the last two games with an injury to his right foot and is questionable for the game Saturday.

With or without Tucker, though, Wisconsin is still Minnesota’s most heated rival and a noteworthy team nationally.

A win over the Badgers would serve notice that the Gophers are indeed for real, and, barring a late-season meltdown, put them in very good shape to get an NCAA Tournament bid.

“We try to avoid talking about numbers and just win some games,” Lawson said. “But a win would definitely be really big on our resume.”