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February 28, 2012

Badgers look to avoid letdown

MADISON -- One team enters Tuesday's game coming off its biggest win of the year. The other comes in having lost five in a row, beginning with the teams' previous meeting.

While the home team needs a win to clinch its 11th straight season of finishing fourth or higher in the Big Ten, the visitors need a win just to keep any postseason hopes alive. Whereas the team in cardinal and white looks to be peaking at the right time, those in maroon and gold seem to have lost whatever momentum they had three weeks ago.

Those are the differences between Wisconsin and Minnesota as they meet Tuesday night at the Kohl Center. They're clear cut, and indicate that Wisconsin certainly should win in front of its home crowd.

But by no means does any of that mean the Badgers expect an easy victory.

"I think we have to realize, regardless of their losing streak, they took us to overtime and they took us to the brink last time we played them," Jordan Taylor said, referring to the Badgers' 68-61 win at Williams Arena on Feb. 9. "I don't think anybody on our team forgets that. They've got guys who can play up there. Sometimes things just don't click for teams at certain times."

Not only is their a distinct separation in the success levels between the two teams, there also is an apparent difference in the Gophers' and Badgers' locker room atmospheres. Where the Wisconsin players get along as well as you could expect any team to do so, the losing streak seems to have created a rift for Minnesota.

Comments after the ugly 69-50 loss to Indiana show that things certainly are not going well at the U of M right now.

"I can't really imagine [what that's like] because I've never been part of it through all my years of basketball and especially here," Josh Gasser said. "What I think we have is really good team camaraderie. In the locker room, off the court, we get along really well with each other.

"It's a really fun program to be a part of. And if we didn't have that, it would be much more difficult to rebound from losing streaks [and] from bad games, which happen to every team. But they're fighting for a win. … They'll come in ready to play."

Unfortunately for the Gophers, the late season slide is not exactly anything new. In fact, neither is dealing with the loss of one of its key players.

Minnesota lost 10 of its last 11 a year ago, turning a once-promising season -- the Gophers were 16-4 (5-3 Big Ten) after winning four straight in January after losing Al Nolen to an ankle injury -- into a disappointing finish. With six losses in their last seven games, the Gophers will not quite reach the 10 of 11 mark from a year ago, but could lose as many as nine of their last 10 games.

A home game against Nebraska to finish the regular season should be winnable for Minnesota, but with the way they've played the last month, nothing is guaranteed.

Much of the Gophers' struggles stem all the way back to November, when a torn ACL suffered by Trevor Mbakwe sidelined the team's scoring leader for the rest of the season. Minnesota showed some early promise, winning their first six in a row without Mbakwe, but have since gone 5-11.

The loss of Mbakwe hurts UM not only in terms of his statistical performance, but also due to the absence of his on-court leadership. Without him in the lineup, the Gophers have been unable to find a true leader this season.

"Last year, we responded well and we were competitive," Tubby Smith told reporters after Sunday's loss to Indiana. "[Sunday], we didn't show that spirit, that fight that you have to have.

"You're close every loss, the Wisconsin overtime game. You're right there in every one of them, so you think, 'It'll go our way. Just be patient.' But it hasn't."

Wisconsin has seen its share of struggles this season, whether it's the surprising three-game losing streak early in the Big Ten season or their shooting woes that have lead to additional surprising defeats at the Kohl Center.

Those two factors are the biggest reasons why despite an impressive 6-3 Big Ten road record, the Badgers will finish no better than a tie for second place in the conference. Had UW been just a bit more consistent with its shooting, and/or avoided three straight losses early in the Big Ten season, it might be wrapping up a league title this week at the Kohl Center.

Instead, the Badgers will simply look to ride the momentum from Sunday's win at then-No.8 Ohio State. They'll also be careful not to overlook Minnesota or have a letdown against the Gophers.

"That's always something you have to be conscious of in Big Ten play," Jared Berggren said. "We've said it all year, you can't take any night off in the Big Ten. It doesn't matter who you're playing, a team at the top of the standings or the bottom.

"Every team's going to play hard. Every team's going to compete, and every team is capable of beating anyone really. So there can't be any letdowns, and we have to keep our focus, keep our mental and be prepared to take their best shot and give our best shot right back at them."


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