Gophers seek leadership at Wisconsin

Minnesota and Wisconsin wrap up their season series Tuesday in Madison.

by Charlie Armitz

A quick look at the box score of Minnesota’s Feb. 9 game against Wisconsin at Williams Arena doesn’t show much difference between the two rivals.

The Gophers fought back from a 10-point deficit, nearly won in regulation and missed their chance to win in overtime.

A look at the two teams’ records, however, shows a world of difference — Minnesota is 5-11 in the Big Ten with five consecutive losses; No. 14 Wisconsin is 10-6 in conference on the heels of a 63-60 win at then-No. 8 Ohio State.

While both teams have battled inconsistency, Wisconsin, unlike the Gophers, has proven that it can hang with the nation’s best teams and beat them.

The Badgers have been solid at home and on the road thanks to a suffocating defense that has held its last 14 opponents to less than 70 points.

Minnesota’s once-impressive NCAA tournament résumé now features a single signature win — at then-No. 7 Indiana on Jan. 12 — and three bad losses. All of the close defeats to quality teams in between likely won’t matter when Selection Sunday rolls around.

After back-to-back home losses to Michigan State and Indiana, the Gophers suddenly find themselves playing with little at stake. Their biggest obstacle Tuesday in Madison, Wis., might be their own lack of energy, which doomed them from the start of Sunday’s 69-50 loss to the Hoosiers.

“Psychologically, we have to find a way to get the kids back up,” head coach Tubby Smith said in Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “Certainly, heading to Wisconsin will be a real test of our character.”

He added: “There’s a silver lining in every situation. Right now it’s pretty hard to find one.”

Minnesota also faces the frustrating task of defending Jordan Taylor, who boasts a unique combination of explosiveness, patience and leadership on offense.

“He’s brought along this front line as well as a coach could ask for,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said of Taylor in the teleconference. “He’s helped turn three reserve players from last year who didn’t get a lot of playing time into competing at a high level. Not every point guard in America can do that.”

Taylor lit up the Gophers for 28 points in Wisconsin’s 68-61 win at the Barn and played lockdown defense in key moments.

He added a team-high 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the Badgers’ win against the Buckeyes on Sunday.

For the Gophers, the lack of a true leader has brought disaster in recent weeks. Efforts to run the offense through junior forward Rodney Williams and senior forward Ralph Sampson III have failed, and Minnesota’s young guards have lacked consistency.

“I would like to see our guys step up and be leaders and say they don’t want to be part of [losing],” Smith said in the teleconference. “We’ve lost five in a row, and it certainly doesn’t get any easier.”

Dismal as the situation is, there remains hope for the Gophers.

After closing out the regular season at home against Nebraska, they will head to the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis on March 8-11. There, Minnesota will likely face a first-round opponent from the bottom half of the Big Ten, which could help it build momentum for the weekend.

If Minnesota wins four games in four days to capture the Big Ten tournament crown, it will earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

For now, the Gophers could put itself in good position to earn a bid to the National Invitation Tournament with a pair of wins to end the regular season.

That’s something Minnesota failed to do last season when it lost 10 of its last 11 conference games and missed out on any sort of postseason play.