Gophers have brutal week ahead of them

Wisconsin broke program records for its best start as well as consecutive victories.

Zach Eisendrath

It’s arguably the toughest five-day span in college basketball, but the Minnesota men’s basketball team is embracing it.

While a tilt with No. 2 Ohio State waits in the wings Sunday, the Gophers (9-16 overall, 3-8 Big Ten) first have to deal with National Player of the Year candidate Alando Tucker and No. 3 Wisconsin tonight. The border battle tips off at 7 at Williams Arena.

Despite losing three straight games, Minnesota interim coach Jim Molinari said he believes his team is up for the challenge of facing the Badgers, who are currently ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten.

”We know if Wisconsin plays their best game and we play our best game, that won’t be good enough,” he said. ”Hopefully, we can create an atmosphere with our fans that takes (the Badgers) out of their best game and then we’ll have to play our best.

”We have to get our licks in and keep fighting them, and hopefully we’ll have some success.”

Success is something Wisconsin has had plenty of this season. The Badgers (24-2, 10-1) have already set program records for the best start (21-1) and most consecutive wins (17). With a win tonight they might also set a record for most wins in a season.

Many of the accolades Wisconsin has been accumulating are thanks to Tucker’s 20 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He has already won the Big Ten Player of the Week award four times this year, and is almost a lock for Conference Player of the Year.

But Molinari said it is Badgers coach Bo Ryan’s ability to have his players buy into his swing offense and half-court defense that makes Wisconsin so tough to beat.

Minneapolis native Kammron Taylor is one of those players flourishing in Ryan’s system. The 6-foot-2-inch senior guard is second on the team in scoring with 13 points per game.

Another Minnesota native who could have jumped ship with Taylor is Gophers freshman center Bryce Webster.

Wisconsin was one of many teams that recruited Webster, but the Minnesota big man said he didn’t think it would be a good fit.

Now wearing the maroon and gold, Webster believes that if the Gophers are consistent, they can challenge the Badgers.

”We’re playing basketball, just like they are,” Webster said. ”We practice each day like they do and work hard. We’re just going to stick to our game plan and our identity.”

Webster is still trying to find his spot on the floor with Minnesota. He’s just one of many players Molinari says has been in a ”period of readjustment” since the return of junior center Spencer Tollackson.

To his surprise, Webster started alongside Tollackson in Saturday’s 82-80 loss at Michigan, a game in which the Gophers’ two leading scorers – junior guard Lawrence McKenzie and junior forward Dan Coleman – came off the bench. As of Monday, Molinari didn’t know if he would stick with the change.

Whatever lineup Minnesota does unveil, it will likely include Tollackson. It was in the Gophers’ 68-45 loss in Madison on Jan. 6 that he broke his left hand, forcing him to sit out seven games. Finally healthy, Tollackson has rejuvenated Minnesota’s offense.

”They look pretty good with him in there because (Tollackson’s) a post presence that can get things done,” Ryan said to reporters at the Kohl Center in Madison on Monday. ”They’re a better team with him back on both ends of the floor.”

But it will take more than Ryan’s praises for the Gophers to turn things around. After all, Wisconsin has won 10 of the last 11 meetings between the rival schools.

Still, Molinari said he believes his team will exchange blows with the Badgers.

”That’s why you’re in this. You want to play the best,” Molinari said. ”That’s the only way you can keep your program moving along.

”I think all these games at this time of the year in February are a huge fight. So we have to run to the fight, but I’m confident we will.”