Paul Bunyan’s axe isn’t up for grabs tonight. Instead is a ticket for round three with a whole lot of incentives.
On Minnesota’s angle, defeat would mean NIT. A consolation for coming a few wins shy of NCAA tournament worthiness. A win however, fulfills the Gophers dreams of joining the Big Dance.
As for Bo Ryan’s Badgers, a win means momentum. Expectations are high; as they should. A team this talented doesn’t come around that often. Winning will relieve stress. Another loss would just add to the pressure cooker.
This afternoon’s rubber match between Minnesota and Wisconsin calls for high drama with plenty of action. I have three keys for the Badger’s game plan which will determine the outcome
Battle of free throws
Yes I know; this sounds like an oxymoron, but the contact-less moment of a free throw has been a major factor between these teams.
Against Wisconsin, the Gophers have shot 84 percent, ten above their average. At home on Jan. 22, they were a perfect 11-of-11 from the line. Their only issue is that they don’t travel to the charity stripe often.
I’m going to point the finger at their bigs on this one. The Gopher’s three leaders in free throws attempted are all guards. Point Guard Andre Hollins has shot more than Maurice Walker and Elliot Eliason combined.
It’s a waste for a great shooting team to not travel to the line. Minnesota loses it’s offensive balance occasionally by falling in love with the jump shot. In their loss to the Badgers, Minnesota hoisted 17 shots from beyond the arc; ten more than on January 22.
For Wisconsin, getting to the line isn’t an issue; neither is shooting. UW is third in the Big Ten in Free Throws made, attempted, and percentage.
Most certainly you can make and argument that UWs shooting from the stripe decided the February 13 rematch. 38 percent of the Badgers offensive came from line as they nailed a whopping 30 of 37 attempts.
We know Nigel Hayes can draw fouls at ease so it’s up to others to assert themselves. Everyone will need to attack the rim to create foul trouble.
Avoiding fouls is impossible and Minnesota knows that. Their 596 personal fouls have them fourth in conference. Coach Richard Pitino will pull a multitude of players off the bench if trouble occurs. Their talent however just doesn’t match up.
A main component of Bo Ryan’s dull formula of success is free throw shooting. It’s simple: get to the line and good things will happen.
Take care of Andre and Austin Hollins
Although there’s no relation between the two, they make a sound combination on the court. The Tennessee natives have taken over a large mass of the offensive workload for the Gophers.
Austin has been the energizer of the Gophers season. He plays hard like any senior would. His athleticism can bring a crowd to it’s feet.
The Badgers have actually done a solid job on him this year. Other than a rim rocking jam in Minneapolis he’s been fairly quite. UW has held him below his averages in scoring along with rebounding.
With that said, Wisconsin can’t sleep on Austin. The Senior is giving everything he has to prove the selection committee that Minnesota belongs in the Big Dance. Yesterday, Austin dropped a game high 18 against the Nittany Lions. With his collegiate days numbered, Austin seems to be taking matters into his own hands.
He won’t go far without his buddy Andre.
Andre is the second Hollins; the point guard who leads the way for the Gophers.
A twisted ankle prevented him from joining in on Minnesota’s early season upset against UW. He made the most of his second opportunity by putting up 22 points on the Badgers. It wasn’t enough to get the Gophers the win but his impression was felt.
UW needs to be careful on Andre. His ability to score often catches teams off guard. What makes him special is his range. Hollins is a superb shooter that can bury a series a shots in a blink of an eye.
To stop Andre, you must test him defensively. He has had issues staying out of foul trouble. Yesterday, three early fouls took precious minutes from his second half.
Wisconsin would like to mimic Penn St. tonight. Throwing off the Gophers rotation would delight Bo Ryan. Point Guard Traevon Jackson should seek out Hollins offensively. Jackson’s excellence at drawing fouls has frustrated teams all season. An early benching for Andre would spell disaster for the Gophers.
Watch out for Malik Smith
Malik Smith is one of those players who’s either ice cold, or scorching hot.
As of late, he’s been on the cold side; averaging just a point-and-a-half over the past seven games. That doesn’t mean he’ll back down. If you give Smith a fraction of space he’ll gladly fire away.
Smith is Minnesota’s designated sharp-shooter. 75 percent of his shots come from long range. Malik shoots five triples a game. If you think that’s a lot, check his stats last season at FIU.
In late January, Smith was given the opportunity to start in place of injured Andre Hollins. The Senior stepped up, tying a Minnesota record of eight triples made against Nebraska.
Since Minnesota’s loss to Wisconsin, Malik hasn’t made multiple 3s in a game. His impact is crucial for the Gophers to succeed. When Smith makes two or more 3s the Gophers are 13-7.
Bo Ryan must order a top defender to guard Smith. Josh Gasser or Ben Brust would be likely your viable candidates.