MADISON - For all of the publicity the Wisconsin-Minnesota football rivalry has received as a one-sided affair over the last few years, the hardcourt edition of the border battle has been very even. In fact, the two teams are 3-3 against each other over the last four seasons, with the Badgers currently riding a three-game winning streak that stopped an identical streak by the Golden Gophers.
But the series isn't even in just wins and losses. Since the 2008-2009 season, the Gophers have just a three-point lead in total points over those six games, narrowly edging out the Badgers 363-360. And while the No. 12 Golden Gophers are currently riding a three-game losing streak, it's clear that the Badgers recognize the kind of team they'll be facing Saturday afternoon in the Kohl Center.
"Tubby's had some good teams but a couple injury bugs have caught them and unfortunate circumstances [hurt them]," senior forward and Minnesota native Mike Bruesewitz said. "I think they've had a lot of good teams, and this is one where I think they're just putting it all together and figuring it out."
As it turns out, Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith had pretty good reason to call this year's squad one of the best teams he's had in Dinkytown. The Gophers beat a then-ranked Memphis team in late November, and started out the Big Ten season on a hot streak with wins over No. 18 Michigan State and No. 12 Illinois.
However, the in-conference roll didn't last long. The Gophers narrowly lost to No. 5 Indiana on the road, and then lost a big home game to No. 5 Michigan promptly afterwards. Their losing streak extended to three games Wednesday night with a 55-48 road loss to Northwestern, but the Badgers seem to think the Gophers are more like their 3-0 start than their 0-3 skid.
"They've got some talent," assistant coach Gary Close said Thursday. "They're physical. They guard people. They rebound. They turn people over. They play hard. They're a really good basketball team."
Statistically, the Gophers are near the top of the Big Ten in points per possession and points per game, and lead the conference in offensive rebounds per game. Senior forward Trevor Mbakwe averages 8.6 rebounds per game, and Bruesewitz said containing Mbakwe will be a big key to slowing the Gophers down.
"He's explosive. He's powerful, relentless on the glass," Bruesewitz said. "I think he's one of the best rebounders in the country if not the best. He's got nine-foot arms and 10-foot hands and giant feet. He makes them go, so we've got to make sure we do a good job on him."
Bruesewitz, who played against Mbakwe while the two were in high school in Minnesota, said Mbakwe and his teammates' athleticism allows them to fight for and come away with a lot of rebounds, giving them second chances if their shots aren't falling on a particular night.
"They're very athletic, one through five," Bruesewitz said. "They just know 'if we miss this, we're going to go get it. We're going to out-physical you.'"
So while a great defensive effort kept the Badgers in the game against Michigan State earlier this week, it won't matter as much if they can't compete for rebounds and force some stops out of the Gophers. That will make fundamentals like free throw shooting even more important for the Badgers than is has been in recent weeks.
After all, given the history of the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, the game should be competitive down to the final buzzer. The two teams have averaged a score of 64-56 over the last six games, and with a conference win and the end of a losing streak at stake for both teams, it's unlikely that Saturday's game will be much different.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.