Busting Brackets

Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: 2020-21 college basketball game preview, TV schedule

Feb 5, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard D'Mitrik Trice (0) passes the ball to forward Nate Reuvers (35) while Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Marcus Carr (5) defends in the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 5, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard D'Mitrik Trice (0) passes the ball to forward Nate Reuvers (35) while Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Marcus Carr (5) defends in the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports /

In a showdown of top-25 squads from the Big Ten, Minnesota and Wisconsin will meet in a battle of two teams on different trajectories.

TV schedule: Thursday, December 31, 4:30 pm ET. BTN

Arena: Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin

In the lone top-25 matchup on Thursday, the 21st-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers will travel to Madison to take on the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.  With one coming off their worst loss of the season, and one currently on a three-game winning streak comprised of their three best wins of the season, this game carries significant weight for both teams in the early goings of the brutal Big Ten schedule.

The Golden Gophers (9-1) have been one of basketball’s best stories this season.  Picked to finish 11th after returning 48.8% of the scoring from last year’s 15-16 team, the Gophers looked unremarkable to begin the year, barely scraping by Loyola Marymount in the third game of the year (67-64), storming back from a 15-point deficit to overcome Boston College in overtime, and getting blown out at Illinois in mid-December (92-65).

But Richard Pitino‘s squad hit the ground running after their loss to the Illini, winning three-straight – which includes victories over a potential top 25 squad and the best team in the A-10 in Saint Louis, an overtime Christmas win against a top-ten Iowa team, and a 25-point shellacking over Michigan State just a few days ago.  Their wins over Saint Louis and Iowa propelled the Gophers to 21st in the AP Poll, their first national ranking since 2017.

Minnesota has been led by the sensational Marcus Carr, an All-American caliber talent who has averaged 24.0 points and 6.1 assists, the fourth and 24th-highest marks nationally, respectively.  He has not been alone, however – Liam Robbins (13.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, and a nationally 24th-best 2.6 bpg) and Both Gach (11.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 3.5 apg) has been instrumental in Minnesota’s surprising success this season.

The Gophers are an average shooting team (31.1% on 3PT and 51.6% on 2PT) but rank in the top 100 defensively, holding teams to a 91st-best 30.8% from beyond the arc and 45th-best 44.3% on two-pointers.  Minnesota is one of the fastest offensive teams in the country, playing the 27th-fastest tempo and maintaining an average possession length of 15.3 seconds – the 30th-highest mark.

Most importantly, they are the best team in the country at getting to the free-throw line – they get there 30 times a game and drain 22.7 of their shots from the charity stripe, both the highest-marks in Div. I.

Their fast-paced style will contrast starkly with that of the Badgers, who rank among the slowest squads in college basketball.  Wisconsin (8-2) entered the year with high expectations, returning 78.7% of the offense from last year’s regular-season Big Ten co-champions that finished 21-10 overall.  The 22nd-most experienced group in Div. I, headlined by a starting lineup of five seniors, the Badgers were picked to finish third in the preseason B10 poll.

Greg Gard‘s crew have been as high in the national polls as fourth and as low as 13th, and have, for the most part, looked like a top-15 team.  They have picked off URI and Loyola-Chicago, two of the premier mid-majors in the country, annihilated a shorthanded Louisville squad by 37, and claimed their first victory in East Lansing over Michigan State since 2004.  Their lone losses came on a buzzer-beating put-back at Marquette, and just days ago in the Badgers’ last outing, falling at home to Maryland (70-64).

Courtesy of their senior starting lineup, Wisconsin features one of the most balanced offensive groups in basketball, where all five starters average at least 9.6 points per game.  Aleem Ford is the lone non-double-digit scorer at 9.6 – whereas D’Mitrik Trice (14.2), Micah Potter (12.2), Brad Davison (10.6), and Nate Reuvers (10.3) comprise those who average double-digits.  Trice, in particular, is coming off a stellar stretch in recent days, pouring in 29 at Michigan State and 25 against Maryland.

Compared to the Gophers, the Badgers are one of the slowest and most methodical teams in basketball – they rank 329th in adjusted tempo and 254th in average possession length (17.7 seconds).  Their methodical style of play allows them to take care of the ball – they rank fourth in turnover percentage, turning the ball over on just 12.2% of their possessions – and allows them to get high-quality shots from beyond the arc, where they rank tenth in 3P% (41.5%).

This will be a clash of two completely opposing styles of teams – one that excels defensively and features one central offensive weapon in Marcus Carr, and one that can dismantle teams from beyond the arc with an all-around onslaught of Big Ten veterans.  Both teams take care of the ball extremely well, but where this game could come down to is whether Minnesota can score inside over Wisconsin’s impeccable defense.

Again, Minnesota relies heavily on getting to the charity stripe – 26.9% of their point distribution comes from there.  Comparatively, just 27.8% (221st) comes from three-pointers and 45.3% (273rd) comes on two-pointers.  They do not shoot well from outside but shoot 51.6% on two-pointers.  For context, Wisconsin struggles to defend from beyond the arc, holding teams to 34.3% – but they rank in the top ten in 2PT% defense, maintaining opposing teams to 40.8% shooting.

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With the Big Ten currently cemented as the best conference in college basketball this season, this stretch is just the start of several top-25 squads beating up on each other.  And, in this case, this is a battle of two teams with much to prove – one coming off a bad home loss, and one on a hot streak comprised of season-defining wins.  This is the best game currently on the docket for Thursday – and it should be able to live up to the hype.

Prediction: Wisconsin 84 – Minnesota 80