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February 9, 2012MADISON -- There's no Paul Bunyan's Axe, but it's still the Border Battle.
Sure, it's "just another game", one of 18 Big Ten matchups on the schedule. But the connections between Wisconsin and Minnesota -- both the states and the schools -- always adds a little excitement to any contest between the Badgers and Gophers.
Since the 2001-02 season, Bo Ryan's first at the helm, Wisconsin has gone 13-4 against Minnesota, including a pair of six-game winning streaks. More recently, however, the Badgers have just one win in their last four meetings with the Gophers.
That win came last season, by a 68-60 margin at the Kohl Center. To find the last UW win at Williams Arena, you have to go back four years to Feb. 3, 2008, when Jordan Taylor was a senior at Benilde-St. Margaret's in Saint Louis Park, Minn.
"It definitely would be nice to go home and win there," said Taylor, who considers UM forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams to be friends of his. "I haven't won at Williams yet, so it'll be fun."
Taylor is one of four Badgers from Minnesota, and one of three starters along with Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren. For as much as they downplay the significance of the matchup, there's no denying that games against the Gophers are a little different than most for the Minnesota natives on UW's roster.
With the relative youth of the two teams, though, many players on each side have little or no experience against the other.
In fact, only four active players on Minnesota's roster -- Maverick Ahanmisi, Austin Hollins, Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III have even seen the court against Wisconsin. And only Sampson has faced UW in more than one game.
Couple that with the Gophers' depth and it does not make preparing for the Gophers very easy.
Things have not been easy for Minnesota, either, since losing Mbakwe in late November to a season-ending ACL tear. He was the Gophers' leading scorer and rebounder at the time, and they've been successful lately with more of a team-oriented approach.
"They're playing more guys; they're playing 10 or 11 guys," said UW assistant coach Gary Close. "And in a lot of cases, those guys are playing crucial minutes. Literally every one of them has, at one time or another, played well and made a contribution.
"So, it makes your preparation more difficult because you're preparing for 10 or 11 guys that all could hurt you. They don't always all do it at the same time, but they can, they're capable."
As Close alluded to, 10 different Gophers enter Thursday's game averaging more than 10 minutes per game, while eight play at least 15 minutes per contest. Minnesota's bench ranks first in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation, playing 41.5 percent of its minutes this season. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is 327th in the nation with the bench playing 21.8 percent of its minutes.
Only two Minnesota players -- Williams and Sampson -- average double figures in points, but seven players contribute five or more points per game.
In their 69-61 victory Sunday at Nebraska, the Gophers got 40 points from their bench, including a career-high 15 points by Chip Armelin. Armelin had 14 points in a Jan. 28 overtime win against Illinois, a game which saw UM reserves score 39 points. On the season, Minnesota's bench averages
Seven different Gophers have led the team in points in two or more games this season.
"They've got some depth worked into the lineup now," Ryan said. "So it hasn't surprised any of us that they're doing well, especially in a league that you just don't know. There are some years you can have a team that would go 15-3 in the Big Ten, and that same team in another year could go .500, the way things are this year."
In addition to getting contributions from nearly every player on the roster, the Gophers' length also adds a degree of difficulty.
Minnesota has blocked 129 shots this season for a Big Ten-leading average of 5.4 per game. The Gophers also led the league in each of the last three seasons, blocking a school-record 201 shots in 2008-09, 199 shots in 2009-10 and 169 a year ago.
Sampson, who ranks third in UM history with 193 career blocks, is seventh in the Big Ten at 1.3 per game this season. Williams has 37 on the year, good for third in the conference with a 1.5 blocks per game average.
"They're definitely a long team; they like to block shots," Ryan Evans said. "We're going to have to stay grounded, just recognize that, and use a lot of pump fakes, ball fakes, and just try to play our game."