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January 21, 2014

Pitino brings fresh take to rivalry





MADISON, Wis. - Rivalry games usually follow the same narrative, no matter the sport. Both teams will swear to bring their 'A' game, because they know their opponent will too.

Someone will also mention that there's no love lost between the two teams, who have played each other so often that they know what their opponent will try to do before they try and do it. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

And while the setting will remain the same and a few old faces are still hanging around at Williams Arena, Wednesday night's game between the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers has an unmistakable air of freshness to it- in large part thanks to a change at the top on Minnesota's bench.

The Gophers were looking for a change when they fired Tubby Smith after six respectable but stale seasons where Minnesota never finished above .500 in Big Ten play. And so far it looks like they got what they were looking for in Richard Pitino.

A son of famed Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, Richard Pitino has the Gophers at 14-5 (3-3 Big Ten)- just one year removed from an 18-14 season at Florida International in his first year as a head coach. For the most part he's brought his style from FIU to Minneapolis: the Gophers will go up-tempo more often than they did under Smith on both sides of the ball.

So far this season the Gophers are averaging 69.1 possessions per game, which is up from 65.8 in 2012, 66.7 in 2011, and 66.8 in 2010. That's not far off from the 71.3 possessions per game Pitino's FIU squad managed last year, and the Badgers said it's a sign of an aggressive team.

"It just seems like they're all confident and they're all looking to score," junior guard Josh Gasser said Monday before practice. "Those are teams that are hard to guard, so we've got to be ready to go."

A big part of Minnesota's early success should be credited to a deep group of guards, led by Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins (no relation). Andre and Austin Hollins are scoring 15.79 and 12.21 points per game, respectively, and it is not just related to playing time. The Gophers are taking more 3-point shots as a team, where they lead the Big Ten at 22 3-point attempts per game.

Part of that increase is thanks to junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who transferred to Minnesota after spending his freshman season at Morehead State and his sophomore season at Central Arizona College. Mathieu is scoring 11.21 points for the Gophers and allows Pitino to lean on a three-guard lineup, which in turn helps Minnesota boost the tempo when they want to.

"[Mathieu] gives them really quick, good guards out there," Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close said Monday. "He's a great penetrator, so he draws help and finds people and he's a really good defender."

The Gophers have also benefitted from a scoring surge by center Elliot Eliason. The 6-foot-11 Eliason is averaging 6.84 points per game for the season but has scored 8.5 points per game over Minnesota's last nine games. That's a big boost for a team that lost two experienced forwards in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams from last year's team, in no small part because this is Eliason's first season as a major contributor.

Seeing the Gophers try to run up and down the court is a little odd after six years under Smith, but Pitino's aggressive defense also sets them apart from his predecessor and the rest of the Big Ten. The Gophers try to press their opponents on defense as much as possible, and they've gotten results so far. They lead the Big Ten with 8.3 steals per game, and Close said the Badgers will have to be aggressive if they want to beat the press and keep from turning the ball over.

"They'll try and get you on your heels but you've got to try and be fundamentally sound," Close said of beating the press. "I don't think you've got to change anything [offensively]- you've just got to do it really well."

So even though the Badgers will take on a few familiar faces on Williams Arena's signature raised court, Wednesday night's game will add something new to a rivalry game that has been played 193 times since 1901. And while the Gophers have already reaped some of the benefits of their new style of play, the Badgers might not mind the change of pace after going 1-3 against Minnesota and Tubby Smith on the road since 2009.

A fresh start might be what both teams are looking for, but only time will tell which team benefits the most.



John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.


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