When the newly-ranked No. 20 Wisconsin men’s basketball team (17-7 overall, 8-3 Big Ten) heads to Williams Arena in Minneapolis Thursday for a matchup with Minnesota (17-7 overall, 5-6 Big Ten), it will be facing a team that has not successfully defeated the Badgers in close to three seasons.
The last time the Golden Gophers triumphed over the Badgers — five matchups ago — came Feb. 18, 2010, a loss that only UW seniors, then-freshmen, can remember.
Since their previous matchup Jan. 26, things could not have gone more differently for Wisconsin and Minnesota this season.
After the Badgers stole the victory in a low-scoring 45-44 affair in Madison, the Badgers went on a tear — winning three of their next four games, including key wins against Illinois, Iowa and then-No. 3 Michigan.
In the same span, the Gophers, who boasted a No. 12 ranking the last time they met, have since struggled — only managing two wins in their last five against Big Ten cellar dwellers Nebraska (3-9 Big Ten) and Iowa (4-7 Big Ten) at home — while falling out of the rankings.
Despite their very different fortunes over the last month, the Badgers know they can expect a battle from their neighbors to the west in a Big Ten conference that has proven itself to be one of the most competitive in the country this year.
“Everybody is so good,” senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “You have to bring your A-game every night, regardless of the last three games or regardless of what happened the night before. We went down to Indiana, knocked them off, and then we go into Iowa and kinda get punched in the mouth.
“That’s just how the league is, and that’s how it’s going to be.”
While the rivalry, which includes 198 matchups and dates back to 1901, is already full of history for both teams, the recruiting competition between Wisconsin and Minnesota adds yet another layer to the ties between the two.
Three Wisconsin players — Bruesewitz, Jared Berggren and sophomore guard Jordan Smith — all have roots in Minnesota, and for seniors Bruesewitz and Berggren, this trip to Minnesota will be their last in a Badger uniform.
Still, despite his link to Minnesota and what will be a homecoming of sorts Thursday, Berggren said his focus heading into the matchup is still a simple one: to win.
“It’s a little bit [bittersweet],” forward/center Berggren said. “I’m just excited about another opportunity to play and another exciting game… It’s going to be fun to have family and friends there, but its just another game, so we have to go down there and take care of business.”
But after barely coming out with the victory a month ago, Bruesewitz and Co. realize that may be easier said than done against an athletic and upset-minded Minnesota team.
“They have a lot of guys that are really long, really athletic,” Bruesewitz said. “They can challenge anybody … defensively they can present a problem, and then on offense you have to make sure that you don’t give any of them room.”
Led by guard Andre Hollins, who is averaging 13.8 points per game, and forward Trevor Mbakwe, with nearly nine rebounds per game, the Gophers as a team average 71.2 points-per-game, while holding their opponents to an average of only 61.4 points.
In its last matchup against UM, UW gave up eight points and 10 rebounds to Mbakwe, while Hollins lit up the Badgers for 20 points — good enough for nearly half of all the Gophers’ points alone.
In what could be another low-scoring game between bitter rivals, containing these two could be key if the Badgers hope to extend their current winning streak to four and their winning streak against Minnesota to five.
Even more importantly, however, a win against Minnesota could serve to galvanize a Wisconsin team that suddenly finds itself a legitimate title contender just one game back in the race for the Big Ten title behind only Michigan State and Indiana.
“Every game is big now,” Berggren said. “The more wins we get, as we come down the stretch finding ourselves near the top of the standings, the games just get bigger and bigger. This next one is the biggest game of the year.”