Gophers vs. No. 9 Wisconsin: 5 things to watch for

Jace Frederick

The only other time the Gophers faced four-consecutive top-15 teams (1987), they went 0-4. With a win on Wednesday night against No 9 Wisconsin at Williams Arena, Minnesota could finish a previously unfathomable 2-2. That would be huge for the Gophers' NCAA Tournament resume. That would be huge for the team's confidence. That would be huge for all of the Gophers fans who would have bragging rights over their border rival until the teams meet again in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 13th.

Here are my five things to watch for:

Andre Hollins: Sometimes I randomly throw Andre Hollins on this list for kicks — sometimes because I'm short on things to write about. That's not the case today. In October, Hollins said he already had the Gophers matchups against Wisconsin highlighted in his mind. He said he’ll average “like 20 against them” this season.

He's certainly torched them in the past. In his four-career matchups with the Badgers, Hollins has averaged 19.8 points per game. He's topped the 20 point plateau three times.

“They always go under the screen (on the pick-and-roll) and the big doesn’t hedge and it’s a wide-open shot,” Hollins said in October. “That’s one of the games I’m looking forward to.”

His head coach isn't so sure that will be the case.
 

"I don't think they're going to go under on Andre," head coach Richard Pitino said. "They won't go under on him. I think they'll give him a 15, 16-foot contested jumpshot."

Pitino also said Hollins is dealing with a "toe-issue" (doesn't know what foot) that's slowing him down a little bit. 

"I think when he gets tired, it hurts him a little bit," Pitino said. "So that's hampering him a little bit, just causing him to get a little bit more fatigued than he normally is."

Tempo: The last three times these two teams have met, neither squad has cracked the 60-point mark. That includes an overtime contest.

But this year will be different, right? Pitino brought his up-and-down system to Minnesota and both of these squads are averaging over 75 points per game. Austin Hollins said this is the most-talented Wisconsin team he's seen in his four years with the Gophers.

"I know they like to run, but we like to run too," Hollins said. 

I'm not so sure either team really likes to run — or at least normally does it. 

While both teams have seen slight upticks from the 2012-13 versions of themselves in terms of pace of play, they're both still really slow. Wisconsin ranks 290th in the nation in adjusted tempo. Minnesota is 227th. There are only 351 Division-I teams.

Yes, Wisconsin scores. But that has a lot more to do with the Badgers ability to maximize possessions. Wisconsin has the sixth most efficient offense in the nation and is third in offensive turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com. Toss in their 39.2 percent shooting from down town, and it's easy to see how they score.

But the tempo of this game probably won't be fast. 

"I'd love to [crack 60]," Pitino said. "You take what the opponent gives you. I'd like to play fast, but I don't want to play dumb, either. I'd like to be smart with how we're playing. "

"What we'll learn from us is, can we win a game if they do slow it down? The great teams can win playing fast, and they can win playing slower."

The Badgers can certainly win playing slower. They've done it throughout Bo Ryan's tenure. But Ryan said his team would actually like to play fast.

"We try to get up-and-down. Every possession," Ryan said in October. "It's not easy. So if you can't get up, make sure you don't get down."

They usually don't.

Man or Zone?: After the Iowa game, Pitino told reporters it didn't matter what defense he threw at the Hawkeyes. The Gophers couldn't stop them, because on Sunday, his team wasn't willing to defend.

But the decision tonight of whether to go with the Gophers zone defense — as they've been primarily running running throughout the Big Ten slate — or to play man-to-man could play a large factor in Minnesota's success tonight. And with Wisconsin, it's a tricky call.

The zone defense generally opens itself up to three-point shooting and offensive rebounds. Three of Wisconsin's five primary minute eaters shoot better than 42 percent from beyond the arc — which is astonishing. The two Badgers who don't — Jackson and Sam Dekker — are also more than willing to chuck from deep. 

The good news for the Gophers is, Wisconsin isn't very aggressive on the offensive glass. The Badgers only grab 29.7 percent of their misses (The Gophers snag 35.7 percent).

And while Minnesota might actually be able to matchup pretty well with Wisconsin with the man-to-man defense, the problem is Badgers big man Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky shoots 46.8 percent from deep, and if Minnesota does go man, the Badgers would probably love to plant him out on the perimeter to force the Gophers lone shot blocker Elliott Eliason out of the paint.

"[They're] really difficult to guard," Pitino said. "When you set back screens, when you cut so hard — and they do a great job of it, if you help, the guy who sets the back screen pops. Well normally that's their big man. Well their big man, that's Kaminsky, who's a great shooter. So you've got to help, then you've got to get back to your man. If you help on the weak side on the cut, they'll skip it to another shooter."

"So it's a very tough matchup. Man, zone, whatever we decide to play, it's going to be very difficult."

My guess: The Gophers play more zone than man — that just seems to be what Pitino likes to do — but we should see a mixture of both.

Point Guard Matchup: Generally, whoever DeAndre Mathieu lines up against, it creates an interesting matchup. But tonight, that could be especially true. 

Here's a little size comparison between Mathieu and Wisconsin starting PG Traevon Jackson:

Mathieu: 5-9, 165 lbs.

Jackson: 6-2, 208 lbs.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think these two will matchup against one another very often, with the exception of if Mathieu is pressuring Jackson in the full-court. But if they situation ever arises, if the Gophers go man, would Jackson post the smaller Mathieu up? Would Mathieu be able to stop him? And what about if Jackson gets manned-up with Mathieu? Is he quick enough to stay in front of him? It would be fun to watch.

Austin Hollins: Pitino did finally, really address the fact that Austin Hollins is in a semi-slump. The senior guard has only reached double-figures it points in two of Minnesota's six Big Ten contests.

"He's not playing great, I'm not going to ignore that," Pitino said. "But a lot of it I think has to do with the opponents that he's going against.

And as Star Tribune reporter Amelia Rayno points out, it might have a lot to do with the defenses that those opponents are playing.

As Rayno shows, Hollins has had success against teams that primarily don't play man (Purdue and Iowa), and struggled against the teams that do play man (Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan). And every Big Ten game last season in which Hollins scored 14-plus points, was against a zone. 

Is the answer to Hollins' struggles as basic as the man-zone theory? Maybe, but who knows. Either way, Hollins has to find the answer to maybe not star, but at least contribute offensively on a consistent basis if the Gophers are to be successful throughout the long haul that is the conference season.

KenPom.com game prediction: Wisconsin 70, Gophers 68 (Minnesota has a 43% chance of victory)

Also, check out my story in the Daily today: Elliott Eliason grows into key role for Gophers https://www.mndaily.com/sports/big-ten/2014/01/21/eliason-grows-key-role-gophers