For the 14th-straight year, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team will have to wait until the first round of the Big Ten Tournament is over to know who it will be going up against the following day.
This year, Wisconsin (25-6, 12-6 Big Ten) fills the No. 2 seed in the tournament bracket and will await the winner of No. 7 Minnesota and No. 10 Penn State, who play each other Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
When preparing for a game with two possible opponents, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan says his team will take time to plan for both Minnesota and Penn State, but focus on what it can do to be ready itself.
“It will be one day, one team, one day the next and then a little bit of both,” Ryan said in the Big Ten coaches teleconference Monday. “The other part is to make sure we’re ready, that we’re doing the things that we normally do with as much efficiency as we can. I’m sure that’s how everyone else does it too.”
Minnesota looks like the more likely opponent for Wisconsin to face Friday since the Golden Gophers swept the season series with the Nittany Lions, including a 26-point blowout in its final game of the regular season.
If the Badgers were to matchup with the Golden Gophers in the quarterfinal, it wouldn’t make for an easy opening game. Minnesota has played up to Wisconsin in both meetings this season, winning by 13 points in Minneapolis in the first meeting and losing by just eight at the Kohl Center in February.
Richard Pitino’s Minnesota team is in need of some wins to solidify a position in the NCAA Tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has the Golden Gophers missing the tournament as one of the “first four out” in his bracketology.
Pitino says the key to his team making a run in the conference tournament will be offense and specifically two players.
“The two guys that have been, when we win, offensively the key in my opinion are Austin [Hollins] and [Maurice Walker],” Pitino said in the teleconference. “When those guys put up pretty good number, double digits, we normally win … Austin and Mo may be those two wildcards that, when they’re good offensively, we win.”
In UW’s case, after finishing second in the Big Ten Conference and landing at No. 12 in the Associated Press poll entering postseason play, it is already a lock for the NCAA tournament field of 68. It might be easy to look ahead to the big dance and put less importance on its finish in the conference tournament, but that’s just not how the Badgers, or their coach, are built.
“As a guy that hated to lose a game of marbles growing up or being forced to give my baseball cards to someone else, I don’t like being on that side of the fence,” Ryan said. “We prepare the best way we can for the Big Ten tournament because it is on the schedule and it is next … So it’s extremely important to the players because if you’re going to get into something, you might as well try to do the best you can.”
If Wisconsin were to win its first game of the tournament on Friday, it will then play either No. 3 Michigan State, No. 6 Iowa or No. 11 Northwestern in the semifinals around 3:15 p.m. Saturday. A berth in the Big Ten Tournament could feature a rematch with fourth-seeded Nebraska, a tough matchup after falling to the Cornhuskers in the regular season finale, or a rubber match with top-seeded Michigan on Sunday.
No matter who Wisconsin draws in the quarterfinals or any other round after that, Ryan doesn’t have an explicit strategy on how far he wants his team to go in the conference tournament.
Regardless, Wisconsin and Ryan will be in Indianapolis this weekend, doing everything they can to return to Madison with a Big Ten Tournament Championship.
“We’ve been on all ends of it, winning it, losing in our first game, getting to the final,” Ryan said. “We’ve been all over the map as far as our results and it isn’t because some coaches…[are] like, ‘Well, maybe it’s best. We can stay healthier for the NCAA tournament.’ I don’t buy into any of that. If you’re in it, you’re in it to try and get the whole thing. So, it’s important because it’s there. It’s there on the schedule.”