Gophers at Wisconsin: 5 things to watch for

by Jace Frederick

The Gophers convincing 81-68 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 22 seemed to be a breakthrough, with Minnesota announcing its candidacy as a darkhorse for the Big Ten crown.

Since then, however, both teams experienced significant losing streaks.

But now both are on the upswing, with the Gophers beating Indiana at home over the weekend and the Badgers knocking off No. 9 Michigan State on Sunday.

A win over No. 21 Wisconsin tonight for a season sweep of the Badgers would place the Gophers firmly into the NCAA Tournament field for the time being.

Here are my 5 things to watch for: 

Andre Hollins: The first four times the junior guard faced Wisconsin, he averaged 19.8 points per game, topping the 20-point plateau three times. 

The fifth time he took on the Badgers, he scored the first bucket of the game, but as he came down from his jumper he landed on an opponent's foot and sprained his left ankle, causing him to miss the rest of that game and all of the next two.

But Hollins has played in the last two games for Minnesota. He said on Wednesday that he expected to be about 95 percent come gametime on Thursday.

That could mean trouble for Wisconsin.

The Gophers 45-44 loss to the Badgers last season, when Traevon Jackson hit the game winner that Hollins thought certainly game after the shot clock expired. Hollins still remembers it.

"You don't forget games like that," he said. 

He'll look for redemption on Thursday night.

Big Mo: Mo Walker broke out against Wisconsin, tying a team high with 18 points and chipping in nine rebounds. But since then, Walker has become a focal point of the Gophers offense.

But as Gophers head coach Richard Pitino pointed out on Wednesday, teams will start game planning for Walker, and he'll have to adjust.

"I think it will be a lot more difficult for Mo this game," Pitino said. "He's probably gained a lot more respect from people in the league, so that means they're going to have to start game planning against him. … He's got to be prepared if they dig in on him with a guard or if they trap. He's a pretty good passer."

How quickly Walker is able to adjust to the different things defenses start to throw at him could have a big impact on the success of the Gophers interior offense.

Nigel Hayes: The freshman forward wasn't a key point of the Badgers offense when they traveled to Williams Arena in January.

He is now. 

Hayes has averaged 15 points per game over Wisconsin's last three games. 

"He's been stepping up big for them in the Big Ten season," sophomore forward Joey King said. "He's going to be one of their focal points on offense for them when he's in, but we're going to do our best to shut him down."

It was largely against Hayes where Walker had much of his success in the last matchup. The 6-feet-7-inch forward had a tough time matching up with Walker defensively on the interior, but the same is true when the Badgers have the ball.

Gophers Defense: The Gophers man-to-man defense has looked strong of late. Minnesota played well in the second half against Purdue in man and shut down Indiana and star guard Yogi Ferrell on Saturday. 

Minnesota played nearly all man against Wisconsin in January, when the Badgers shot 44 percent from the field and just 5 for 20 from deep.

So will the Gophers stick to an apparent strength and play man on Thursday night?

"I'm just going to switch it all," Pitino said. "It worked the first time, so let's do something different, see if that one works."

I'm 99 percent sure he was joking. But that other one percent of me isn't sure.

Gophers offense: Minnesota scored 81 points the last time out against Wisconsin (which actually featured a slow tempo, the Gophers were just really efficient). Minnesota scored 44 points the last time it went into Madison.

So which type of performance will the Gophers put forth on Thursday night? To this point in the season, Minnesota has looked fairly comfortable pushing the ball and slowing it down.

But does Pitino have a preference as to how the Gophers play?

"I'd like to score more than 44 points, because that would make me miserable," Pitino said. "But I know it's going to be hard to score on them on the road."

"Relative to a lot of teams, they're a very good defensive team. We know it's going to be a tough test." Prediction: Wisconsin 73, Gophers 65 (Minnesota has a 21 percent chance of victory)

Also, check out some other Gophers-Badgers coverage:

Mo Walker's emergence has helped the Gophers offense evolve:

Pitino likes the Yankees, but what does he think about the NBA?:

Minnesota's offense isn't fast, but it's efficient: