Last season was one to forget for the Minnesota men’s basketball team.
Three players were suspended in February after a sexually explicit video was posted on social media, and a fourth was suspended on a sexual assault charge. On the court, the Gophers went 8-23 with just two wins in Big Ten play.
But Minnesota (15-4, 2-3 Big Ten) surpassed that win total from last season by early December of this season, and the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team will face a completely different program Saturday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Combined with the elimination of off-court issues and an overall improved team mindset, UW associate head coach Lamont Paris said he sees many differences in this year’s Gopher squad.
“I feel like they share the ball maybe a little better,” Paris said. “Defensively, they’re a little more sound I think. I don’t know if the numbers back that up.”
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The numbers do in fact corroborate Paris’ claim.
Minnesota will enter its bout against Wisconsin (15-3, 4-1) leading the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage, as opponents make just 37.9 percent of shots against them. They also lead the league in 3-point field percentage defense (28.4 percent), blocked shots (123) and defensive rebounding (29 per game).
Junior guard Nate Mason leads Minnesota’s scoring efforts, averaging 13.9 points a game. Six-foot-eight freshman guard Amir Coffey, who’s been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice this season, contributes 11.9 points per game, and sophomore guard Dupree McBryer adds 11.7 points per game.
“I think they’re grittier,” Paris said. “Their confidence is higher.”
The pinnacle of the Gophers’ season thus far are two solid road wins against Purdue and Northwestern to start the new year. Since a Jan. 8 victory over Ohio State, they have lost two in a row away from home at the hands of Michigan State and Penn State.
Despite this lull, redshirt sophomore forward, Ethan Happ, sees the Gophers as a dangerous team, especially at home.
“Any team that’s on a losing streak is obviously looking to break it just like Ohio State was when they came in here,” Happ said. “We’re just going to handle business just like [facing] any other team.”
Happ is in the middle of a solid second season, nearly averaging a double-double (12.8 points, 9.1 rebounds). The last three games, however, haven’t been pretty for Happ, who still leads the Badgers in field goal percentage (60.5). Against Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan – exposed to length and athleticism down low – Happ is shooting just 38.4 percent from the field (15-for-39).
“I haven’t noticed anything different besides my own mistakes,” Happ said. “I’m not taking the first shot that’s available. I’m trying to work for the easiest shot. Usually I could take two dribbles and just do a jump hook, but as of late I’ve been worried about trying to get all the way to the rim.”
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Paris pointed out Happ excelled against Georgetown, which had two seven-footers, amassing 19 points and 15 total rebounds in that game. He said the Badgers will continue to feed the big man in spots he likes.
“He’s finished at a high level around the basket,” Paris said. “Sometimes he’ll get in there too deep. I think that’s an advantage to a bigger guy.”
As if stealing a win at the “Barnyard” against a vastly improved Minnesota team wasn’t a tall enough order with their starting five, the Badgers’ challenge may become even greater.
Senior forward Vitto Brown is questionable for Saturday’s game, according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Brown did not practice Thursday because of a lower-leg injury, a UW official told the Sentinel. Brown scored 13 points against Michigan Tuesday night and has started all 18 games this season.
Come Saturday, it will be interesting to see how Happ navigates the defensively talented Minnesota squad. Game time is 3:30 p.m. and will be televised on the Big Ten Network.