Gophers seek .500 record against defensive-minded Wisconsin

Wisconsin has won six of its last seven games.

Charlie Armitz

 

Playing WisconsinâÄôs menâÄôs basketball team is a simple but frustrating task.

The BadgersâÄô agenda on the court is clear âÄî slow play to a snailâÄôs pace and try to win with a stifling halfcourt defense.

Often, that makes the opposing teamâÄôs strategy just as clear: Push the pace, create transition offense and try to avoid playing in halfcourt sets.

For the Gophers (5-6), who play the Badgers (7-4) on Thursday in the teamsâÄô only meeting this season, playing fast has been a recipe for success throughout 2011-12.

In SundayâÄôs 69-61 win against Nebraska, Minnesota succumbed to the HuskersâÄô slow pace for three-fourths of the game minutes before scoring 30 points in the last 12 minutes.

âÄúWe had quick outlets, got a lot of fast-break points,âÄù freshman Elliott Eliason said. âÄú[We didnâÄôt] quite set the tempo early.âÄù

Leading the GophersâÄô late charge was the play of their guards âÄî most notably Chip Armelin, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the last 8:01, most of them in transition.

âÄúThe style of game is critical for [Armelin],âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúWhen youâÄôre playing up and down, he really has a tendency to shine. And when heâÄôs making his [3-pointers] like heâÄôs doing, heâÄôs pretty effective, because he can put it on the floor and take it to the basket.âÄù

Armelin is the primary scorer on a second unit that has excelled in recent wins. MinnesotaâÄôs bench outscored NebraskaâÄôs 40-7 in SundayâÄôs win and outscored IllinoisâÄô 39-9 in the GophersâÄô last home win, a 77-72 double-overtime victory Jan. 28.

âÄúIâÄôm very pleased with all of those guys that are coming in,âÄù Smith said of his bench players. âÄúTheyâÄôre pretty competitive in practice, and thereâÄôs not a big gap in the talent level thatâÄôs starting and coming off the bench. ThatâÄôs why they are so effective.âÄù

Smith has often been criticized for the way he uses his bench âÄî substituting five players in at once âÄî but lately, that approach has worked, as Minnesota has won five of its last seven games after starting the conference season 0-4.

âÄúWe like to run. Sometimes we get tired and [Smith] is just trying to rotate people in so we can have fresh legs running the floor,âÄù sophomore guard Austin Hollins said.

For both of the GophersâÄô units, guard play has been essential. With Trevor Mbakwe out for the season and Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III struggling, Minnesota has been forced to rely on its guards to generate offense.

But even with MinnesotaâÄôs backcourt in charge, it remains anyoneâÄôs guess which of the teamâÄôs guards will bring his A-game to the floor.

Armelin has scored 12 or more points three times in conference play, but he has been held to seven or fewer points in the other six Big Ten games.

Starting shooting guard Joe Coleman has been held scoreless in consecutive games after scoring 81 points in his last six games.

Starter Austin Hollins has scored in double figures in five of his last seven games âÄî but in the other two games, he combined to score three points on 1-for-7 shooting.

Point guards Julian Welch, Andre Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi have been inconsistent as well, although all three have shot the ball well from 3-point range.

Outside opportunities against Wisconsin may be limited. The Badgers rank atop the Big Ten in 3-point field goal defense at .262, and they have allowed 59 fewer 3-pointers than any other team in the conference.

Wisconsin also ranks first in scoring defense with 49.8 points allowed per game âÄî 6.8 points fewer than any other Big Ten school. Only one Badgers opponent this year âÄî Iowa on Dec. 31 âÄî has scored more than 70 points against them.

A big reason for WisconsinâÄôs success on defense is its ability to control the ball on offense. The Badgers average the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten at 8.8. They also average the fewest turnovers forced per game at 11.1.

Wisconsin saw its six-game winning streak end in its last game, a 58-52 home loss to conference leader Ohio State.

But the Badgers are a much-improved team from the one that lost three of four games to start the conference season.

âÄúThey got back to playing their style of basketball,âÄù Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôre the best in the country at taking care of the ball. They donâÄôt turn it over.âÄù

Minnesota native Jordan Taylor leads Wisconsin in points (14.0 per game), assists (4.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.0).

Taylor has scored in double figures in 14 consecutive games and has averaged 16.1 points during conference play.

âÄúThe way he goes is the way [the Badgers] go,âÄù Smith said of Taylor. âÄúIf heâÄôs off his game, then theyâÄôre going to be a bit off their game.âÄù

NCAA tournament hopes remain in the air

Smith said he doesnâÄôt pay much attention to NCAA tournament bracket predictions this time of year, but his team is very much on the bubble.

The Gophers will likely need two more quality wins âÄî and no more bad losses âÄî to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.

For now, it appears theyâÄôre on the outside looking in.

âÄúI don’t like where we sit,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI don’t like that weâÄôre an under-.500 team.

âÄúWeâÄôre a team thatâÄôs got to do a lot of work,âÄù he added. âÄúWeâÄôve got a lot of things that weâÄôve got to accomplish before the end of the season if we want to play any postseason play.âÄù