The feeling has changed since the last time Wisconsin faced Minnesota.
Three weeks ago, the Badgers left the Barn with their third-straight loss to a Gophers team that lost its best player in the first 10 seconds of the game. It was a low moment in a dark time for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Now, heading into Thursday’s matchup at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) is on the rise and looking to build on its largest winning streak since Jan. 8.
“I don’t know if we’re on our way back. I know we’re moving in the right direction, which I guess is almost one in the same,” Wisconsin freshman forward Nigel Hayes said after beating No. 9 Michigan State Sunday. “This was a great win for us, and it’s big for us in terms of confidence. We’ll have to try to ride this win out and hopefully we can get back to the way we were.”
Although Minnesota (16-8, 5-6) impressed people with its win over Wisconsin without its leading scorer Andre Hollins, the Gophers weren’t able to ride that wave of success, losing three straight games all to teams in the bottom half of the conference until beating Indiana 66-60 Sunday.
While Minnesota has hit a slump, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has seen first hand how dangerous the rival to the west can be.
“Minnesota’s a tough matchup for a lot of teams with us being one of them because of there three-point shooting with [Andre] Hollins back now to go along with the other [Austin] Hollins and [Malik] Smith and the two bigs that can shoot it their two stretch forwards,” Ryan said. “So they can hurt you in transition, they can hurt you with their half court stuff with the threes. So defensively we’re going to have to shut down the lanes and chase guys off the three-point line. It’s always easier said than done.”
While the Gophers had Hollins and his 14.9 points per game on the bench in their previous matchup with the Badgers, it was the backcourt combination of Hollins and Deandre Mathieu that stepped up scoring 11 and 18 points, respectively.
Mathieu is coming off of two-straight games having scored more than 15 points against Purdue and Indiana with his ability to drive to the hoop that causes problems for opposing defenses.
“Mathieu can penetrate on anybody. He gets to the rim quicker than 95 percent of the guards in the country,” Ryan said. “He finds people, he’s quicker than a hiccup and he’s been doing it to everybody. They’re one of those teams that if he’s making things happen—and they’re hitting their threes—they’ve won those games. He must be doing something for them.”
Wisconsin’s offense has picked up over its last two wins after failing to shoot more than 40 percent in its losses to Northwestern and Ohio State. A large part of that is attributed to the reemergence of Sam Dekker’s offensive prowess as the sophomore forward has shot 47 percent from the field and 53 percent from three in Wisconsin’s last two games.
Dekker’s offensive production combined with Hayes’ ascension to a consistent scoring option has given the Badgers the consistency they lacked during a stretch where it lost five of six games.
Hayes, who is the Big Ten freshman player of the week for the third time this season, has demonstrated his consistency with his midrange jumper while proving to be an invaluable asset down low, drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line.
Hayes says it is simply the fact that he spend most of his time around the rim that contributes to his ability to get to the free throw line on a consistent basis.
“The percentage of people that get fouled shooting threes and or jump shots is a lot lower than the percentage of guys that attack the rim, so when I do that my chances increase of going to the free throw line,” he said.
Hayes has led the Badgers in free throw attempts for four-straight games while struggling to convert on his attempts, averaging just a 58 percent conversion rate from the free throw line, but is coming off a 8-12 effort against Michigan State.
But the biggest difference coach Ryan is looking for in his team’s second meeting with Minnesota is to build a lead and not let the Gophers hang around.
“We kept playing from behind in that game. We couldn’t seem to get to a one or two possession game,” Ryan said. “They’ve had some games where they’ve run away from people and they’ve had other games where it’s come down to the wire, so we just hope to be on the left hand side when the 40 minutes are over.”