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Friday, May 24, 2024
Minnesota next hurdle for UW in Big Ten climb

Bohannon: Senior guard Jason Bohannon is coming off a career-high 30-point game against Indiana last Saturday.

Minnesota next hurdle for UW in Big Ten climb

This was supposed to be the year Minnesota made it big. With the accomplished Tubby Smith at the helm, nine rotation players were back from last season's NCAA-qualifying team and began the year in the top 25.

But this year is not last year, and the talented Gophers have struggled to a 14-10 record, which all but eliminates their chances at a second-straight tournament berth. Despite that, the Badgers are still quite wary of their neighbors to the west.

Wisconsin heads up I-94 Thursday to take on Minnesota, which last season took a pair of exceptionally tight games from the Badgers. Even in the midst of a chaotic season, the Gophers have more than enough talent to weigh on the minds of opposing coaches.

""They're a dangerous team that's won in a lot of different ways, and I know they've struggled at times throughout the season, maybe haven't played up to what their expectations were,"" associate head coach Greg Gard said. ""They can score and hurt you in a lot of different ways. They can do it with Blake [Hoffarber] shooting a lot of 3s, [Lawrence] Westbrook getting going from the perimeter ... but also they can do it out of their pressure defense, too.""

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That full-court press has been a hallmark of Smith's teams since he coached at Kentucky, and it gave the Badgers trouble as they wore down late in both games, giving up big runs to the Gophers.

This year Minnesota is one of the most effective teams in the country in forcing turnovers and getting steals, but Wisconsin will counter with an offense that specializes in avoiding just those areas.

""They're long, really athletic, so obviously you just take care of the ball, be tight with the ball, be strong with the ball,"" sophomore Jordan Taylor said. ""But that's the nature of our program, that's kind of what this program was built off of, taking care of the ball and getting good shots. So I don't think it presents any different challenges.""

Junior forward Keaton Nankivil added that every Badger may find himself forced to become an outlet if the Gophers manage to trap a ball-handler in the backcourt.

Nankivil will have his own problems, however, dealing with a large Gopher front line that features sophomore centers Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson, as well as athletic senior forward Damian Johnson. That trio has helped make Minnesota one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country.

""It's hard to truly prepare for it, just because they have the length and the athletes and timing and that mentality,"" Nankivil said, pointing out that the Badgers' defense contrasts with that style, eschewing shot-blocking for position defense.

""It's going to be one of those things were we're going to have to try and take advantage of it and maybe try to get them out of position by all the jumping for shots that they do,"" he said.

Another element of getting the Gophers out of position will be drawing those shot-blockers to the perimeter, something Nankivil has shown the ability to do.

He may receive some help on that front, as today could mark the return of Wisconsin's leading scorer, junior forward Jon Leuer, who had been sidelined with a broken wrist.

The coaches and players were less than forthcoming when asked point blank about whether Leuer would play, but he did practice on Monday for the first time since the injury.

""I feel like I'm game ready-right now,"" Leuer said. ""I've been able to workout and run and condition, so I feel like I'm in really good shape and hopefully I can just, like I said, do whatever I can to help the team.""

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