A year ago, then-No. 17 Minnesota won at the Kohl Center for the first time in 17 years. The overtime loss was the second of six in a row and a devastating one for Wisconsin, which had led by as many as 14 points with 14:08 remaining in regulation.
Seven weeks later, Wisconsin lost once more at Minnesota despite again leading with only two minutes remaining in that crucial early March matchup.
Combine last year’s series sweep with four Minnesota natives on the Badgers’ roster — Jared Berggren (Princeton), Mike Bruesewitz (St. Paul), Jon Leuer (Orono) and Jordan Taylor (Bloomington) — and Thursday’s matchup with the Gophers is one several UW athletes have been anticipating since the schedule was released.
“It’s always fun to go play at Williams Arena,” Taylor said of the game. “It’s always incentive when you get to play in front of your friends and family. But either way, we have to just go and play the way we play.”
Last season, guard Lawrence Westbrook led the Gophers in each of the team’s two meetings, scoring 29 points — including a game-tying three at the end of regulation — at the Kohl Center in Minnesota’s Jan. 15, 2009 upset of UW.
Westbrook, a senior, continues to lead the way for Minnesota, averaging 13.4 points per game while also averaging 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per contest. Two other Gopher upperclassmen, guard Blake Hoffarber and forward Damian Johnson also average double-digit points, putting up 11.6 and 10.0 points per game, respectively.
Wisconsin’s biggest challenge against UM will be the length of the Gophers, which is similar to that of Illinois, a team the Badgers lost to last week at home.
“I look back at the games that we played last year, and boy, just some of the things they can do with the passing lanes — and especially for us with out lineup — it can make a difference,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said Monday in his weekly press conference. “But I thought up there we played them pretty tough.”
If his return to practice Monday is any indication, the return of junior forward Jon Leuer from injury should give Wisconsin a significant boost as they travel to Minneapolis. Leuer practiced for the first time after fracturing a bone in his left wrist on Jan. 9 and is expected to return to game action Thursday, 40 days to the date of the injury.
Leuer, who averages 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, should be able to use his size to help the Badgers inside on both ends, an area in which UW has struggled in his absence.
“However he can get back in and contribute, he’s more than willing to do so,” senior guard Jason Bohannon said of Leuer. “When you get him back like that and having him to take the pressure off the guards, and having him to take the big guy out of the paint because he’s hitting open threes — that’s really tough on a defense.”
As Bohannon mentioned, he along with Taylor and senior guard Trevon Hughes should figure to be able to penetrate more easily with Leuer drawing defenders out of the lane while also getting more open shots if he establishes a strong post presence.
Considering all three have shown an ability to lead the team in scoring as well, the addition of Leuer’s 15.4 points per game average should boost the offense back to as strong or stronger than it was before the injury suffered by the native of Orono, Minn.
In addition to the next game being his first back, Leuer’s home is less than 30 minutes from Williams Arena, which should result in a number of family and friends making the short trip east to see how well he’ll bounce back from his injury.
Leuer insists, though, it was not a planned thing.
“It was just a coincidence that, being from Minnesota, and we’re going to Minnesota,” Leuer said. “I’ll have some family there and it will be nice to see them, but it really had no bearing on whether I was going to be back or not.
“The only thing that we were worried about is if I was going to be healthy. We didn’t want to have any doubts going into it, and we don’t now.”