Gophers seek first sweep of Wisconsin since 2009

The Gopher basketball team has a chance to make some history as it hosts rival Wisconsin Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Minnesota hasn’t swept Wisconsin since 2009. Richard Pitino got his first win over the Badgers in the 2013-14 season, his first as Gophers’ coach. They can get that coveted season sweep with a win over the Badgers Wednesday night after beating Wisconsin 59-52 earlier this season in Madison.

The only problem? Wisconsin is ranked No. 19 in the country, and has won five straight Big Ten games. Their average margin of victory in that stretch is 11.4 points.

A win over the Badgers would also prevent their first Big Ten losing streak, and put another quality win on the body of work toward the NCAA Tournament. They’re also wanting to bounce back from losing a 13-point second half lead at Purdue Sunday in a 73-63 loss to the Boilermakers. It was a big missed opportunity for what would’ve been a huge road win.

Minnesota has yet to lose two straight games this season.

“When we come off losses in the past, we learn off those things and correct those mistakes. We just go into the next game with a different mindset knowing we won’t make those mistakes,” sophomore forward Eric Curry said. “We’re just going to play harder, we don’t want to lose back-to-back games. It’s just a desire to not lose back-to-back games.”

If the Gophers are going to sweep Wisconsin, they’ll have to do it by containing Ethan Happ. The senior scored 17 points against Minnesota earlier this year, but shot just 1-of-7 from the free-throw line. The Gophers limited the Badgers to 41 percent shooting for the game, including just 5-of-22 from three-point range.

In Wisconsin’s last five wins, Happ is scoring 15.2 points per game and grabbing 10.2 rebounds per game. He’s fifth in the Big Ten in scoring, and second in rebounding behind Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy. He can pass out of double teams to teammates for open perimeter shots. He also has the footwork and skill set to score in the post. Simply put, Happ is a match-up nightmare.

“He puts you in so many binds. I’ve never seen one player do more for one team, I’ve never seen it,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “When he’s in the game, he just occupies so much.”

For Gophers junior Amir Coffey, it’s a chance to see some familiar faces wearing red jerseys. His Hopkins squad beat Nate Reuvers and Lakeville North for a state championship in 2016. Coffey was also AAU teammates with Badgers’ guard and Maple Grove native Brad Davison.

Both have started all 22 games this season for Wisconsin. Davison is scoring 11.3 points per game, while Reuvers is adding 8.3 points.

Coffey himself is third in the Big Ten in scoring in league games at 19.2 points per game. He scored 22 points at Purdue and added 23 in a win over Iowa.

“They’re both pretty good players. Both starters on a Big Ten team, they’re talented. Obviously Minnesota-Wisco is always a big game, so I’m just excited for the opportunity,” Coffey said. “We’ve got to take care of business and protect our home court.”

The Gophers are 11-1 at Williams Arena this season. After Wisconsin’s visit, the remaining home games are Indiana, Michigan and Purdue.

Minnesota is 1-5 on the road this season. Their remaining road schedule includes Michigan State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Northwestern and Maryland.

The important part, Pitino said, is to avoid a losing skid in the Big Ten. It’s what makes beating Wisconsin so important, with consecutive road games against Michigan State and Nebraska looming. It’s hard to win on the road in the Big Ten, but not impossible. Indiana ended a seven-game conference losing streak with a win at Michigan State on Saturday.

Pitino is curious to see if his team bounces back Wednesday night in a rivalry game. It’s part of a six-game stretch that features five teams ranked in the top 25.

“You’ve got to respond in this league the right way because it can spiral out of control quickly,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to bounce back against a very good Wisconsin team in order to do that.”