Fourteen seconds into Wednesday night's rivalry game against Wisconsin, Minnesota's night already appeared to be going all wrong.
Leading scorer Andre Hollins pulled up for a 15-foot jump shot and landed on the foot of Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser, leaving him writhing on the ground in pain before he was helped off the court without putting any weight on his injured left ankle.
If the first possession of the game couldn't have gone much worse for Minnesota, the next 39 minutes, 46 seconds couldn't have gone much better. Starting guard Deandre Mathieu scored 18 points and reserve guard Malik Smith had 14, enough perimeter production to make up for the loss of Hollins and enable the Gophers to emerge with a 81-68 home win over the Badgers.
"I felt like I had to step up and be a leader because Dre's our leader," Mathieu told the Big Ten Network after the game. "He's our scorer. He does everything for our team. I felt like I had to step up, and I did."
Minnesota's victory puts the Gophers (15-5, 4-3) in strong position to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten and make the NCAA tournament in coach Richard Pitino's debut season. Having survived a four-game stretch against Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin with a respectable 2-2 record, Minnesota now plays six of its next seven games against unranked foes beginning Saturday at Nebraska.
Things aren't so rosy for Wisconsin, which has lost three straight since opening the season with 16 straight wins and raising the question whether this is Bo Ryan's best team. None of Wisconsin's losses at Indiana, at home against Michigan or at Minnesota are disastrous since all three of those teams could play in the NCAA tournament, but collectively they show the areas the Badgers need to improve.
The biggest one is clearly perimeter defense.
Even with Hollins on the bench resting his injured ankle, Wisconsin couldn't stay in front of Matthieu, Smith and fellow guard Austin Hollins off the dribble. Austin Hollins typified the Badgers' struggles with a monster dunk over forward Nigel Hayes after losing his defender with a hesitation dribble. All in all, it was a dreadful night for Wisconsin's guards, one that was reminiscent of the Badgers surrendering 43 points to Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert of Michigan only a few nights earlier.
Of course, Minnesota didn't hurt Wisconsin strictly from the perimeter. Slimmed-down reserve center Maurice Walker scored 18 points for Minnesota including 12 straight in the first half to help the Gophers open a six-point halftime lead.
That Minnesota could beat a Big Ten contender with Andre Hollins sidelined for all but the first 14 seconds had to be encouraging for Richard Pitino and mortifying for Bo Ryan.
Only a week or two ago, Wisconsin seemed to be the biggest threat to Michigan State in the conference. Now the Badgers are floundering, the Gophers are rising and it's clear the Big Ten may be more unpredictable than first guessed.
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