The Minnesota Golden Gophers needed a win Thursday night against Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, or their chances to make the NCAA Tournament would have been in serious peril. The outcome never seemed to be in doubt after the Gophers jumped out a 9-0 lead, but they did have to withstand a second half rally from the Nittany Lions before winning 63-56.
Minnesota will now take on 12th-ranked Wisconsin, and they’ll need a win to effectively remove themselves from the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Gophers beat the Badgers at home 81-68 in the first matchup between the teams this season on Jan. 22, despite losing leading scorer Andre Hollins to an ankle injury early in the game, but Wisconsin won 78-70 in Madison on Feb. 13 in the midst of an eight-game winning streak that re-established them as one of the top teams in the conference.
Here’s my look at Friday night’s game, focusing on a couple key matchups that I think will decide the outcome.
Get To The Point
Point guard Deandre Mathieu had 18 points (8-for-13 from the floor, 2-for-2 on three-pointers) with five rebounds and three assists in Minnesota’s upset win over the Badgers in January, and despite having six assists and six rebounds in the rematch he only had eight points while going just 3-for-10 from the floor. Simply put, Mathieu’s performance will serve as a barometer for the entire team and he’ll have to play one of his best games of the season on Friday night for the Gophers to win.
Badgers’ point guard Traevon Jackson’s numbers against Minnesota during the regular season do not jump off the stat sheet, as he averaged 8.0 points, 2.0 assists and one rebound per game, but he also only attempted eight shots from the floor in the two games. Even without a prominent offensive role, Jackson’s all-around contribution on both ends of the floor will be crucial for Wisconsin.
Go With Mo
Gophers’ forward Mo Walker had his best game of the season in the first matchup against Wisconsin, with 18 points and nine rebounds, but he was not a prominent part of the offense in the second game, with just five points (2-for-2 from the floor). Getting Walker involved offensively, particularly early in Friday night’s game, will be very important for Minnesota.
Badgers’ forward Frank Kaminsky was limited by early foul trouble against the Gophers in the first matchup, but his performance in the second game (17 points and six rebounds) started a late-season surge and he’s averaging 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while making close to 51 percent of his field goal attempts over the last seven games. If Kaminsky gets off to a fast start it could be a long night for Minnesota, so Walker and to a lesser extent Elliott Eliason will need to make him work on both ends of the floor to help take him out of rhythm offensively.
Prediction: Wisconsin 71, Minnesota 68
Brad Berreman is a Senior Writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.