MADISON, Wis. - Three weeks ago what looked like just a two-game skid turned into something much more troubling for the Wisconsin Badgers at the hands of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
After allowing Indiana and Michigan to shoot a combined 53 percent from the floor in their previous two games the Badgers allowed Minnesota to shoot a staggering 58.9 percent from the field, electrifying Williams Arena and handing the Badgers a third-straight loss after they started the season 16-0. Minnesota point guard DeAndre Mathieu and forward Maurice Walker both scored 18 points for the Gophers on the night, taking advantage of Wisconsin's thin frontcourt and an already stumbling defense.
At the time it looked like the Badgers had reached rock bottom for a Bo Ryan-coached defense. But while things got better for the Badgers on the defensive end over their next three games, their offense disappeared in home losses to Northwestern and Ohio State.
But now, just over a month after the Badgers slipped into a stretch where they lost five of six games, it looks like they might have turned a corner. Wisconsin has pieced together back-to-back wins over Illinois and No. 9 Michigan State, holding the two teams to just 40.1 percent shooting from the floor. It is the first time they have won back-to-back games in over a month, and the streak has breathed some life into a team that many had left for dead just a few weeks ago.
So if their first loss to Minnesota showed that Wisconsin's defensive issues ran deeper than anyone expected, a win on Thursday over those same Gophers would show that the Badgers can make it work against a team that is built to give them problems on defense.
"Minnesota is a tough matchup for a lot of teams, with us being one of them, because of their 3-point shooting with (Andre) Hollins back now, to go along with the other Hollins and Smith and the two bigs," Bo Ryan said Wednesday. "They can hurt you from outside … they can hurt you in transition, they can hurt you with the half-court stuff with the 3's. Defensively were going to have to shut down the lanes and chase guys off of the 3-point line. It's always easier said than done, though."
Ryan also said the Badgers will try and contain Mathieu better than they did in their first game, because a good night from the point guard allows the rest of Minnesota's offense to flourish.
"(DeAndre) Mathieu can penetrate on anybody," Ryan said. "He gets to the rim quicker than 95 percent of the guards in the country …They're one of those teams where if he's making things happen and they're making their 3's, they've won."
Mathieu was an 'X-factor' for the Gophers in the second half of their win over the Badgers, and has been a catalyst for Richard Pitino's team all season. Minnesota is 4-5 when Mathieu scores less than nine points in a game, compared to 12-3 if he finishes in double-digits. Against the Badgers he made 6-of-10 field goal attempts in the second half and scored 13 points to give the Gophers a lift after the Badgers eventually found a way to stop Minnesota's post game.
It's that kind of versatility that makes Minnesota's offense so dangerous, and they are healthier now than when these two teams last met. Leading scorer Andre Hollins is back after he missed two games after suffering a foot injury in the opening seconds of Minnesota's win over the Badgers, although he has shot just 5-of-23 from the floor in two games after he returned to action.
But no matter how effective Hollins is on Thursday night, Ryan said his team cannot afford to fall far behind the Gophers this time around. The Badgers never led in their first matchup and trailed by as many as 18 points in the game's final minutes, forcing them to take too many late 3-point shots that ultimately didn't find their mark.
"We kept playing from behind," Ryan said. "We just couldn't seem to get it to a one or two possession game. They've had some games where they have kind of run away from people, and they've had other games that came right down to the wire."
Time will tell if the Badgers have improved enough where they can defeat a team that handled them so easily less than a month ago. But a win over the Gophers would go a long way towards proving that the Badgers are at least closer to the team people thought they were after their 16-0 start, instead of the one that took the court for their six-game skid.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.