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After string of close losses, Gophers men’s basketball looks to get over hump against No. 13 Badgers

Each of the four previous Gophers men’s basketball games against Wisconsin over the past two seasons have been two-possession games. And Minnesota has lost all four of them.

Tuesday’s game is expected to be tight yet again, with No. 13 Wisconsin a three-point favorite over the Gophers at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Williams Arena. It’s the first game this season against a ranked opponent for Minnesota (12-6, 3-4), which has lost three straight games over the past two weeks.

“Our guys understand it’s a close border battle,” Gophers head coach Ben Johnson said. “… You look across the league and there are teams you know maybe match up better than others, just in terms of style of play. That could play a factor into it, just match-up-wise.

“… Now it’s our job to try to be able to finish that,” Johnson continued. “We’ve been close … but how do we get over the hump and finish it?”

The Badgers (14-4, 6-1) are in first place in the Big Ten but suffered their first conference loss against Penn State last Tuesday, and Wisconsin is the worst in the conference in opponent field goal percentage (45.7) and opponent 3-point percentage (35.5).

This will be true freshman guard Cam Christie’s first rivalry game against Wisconsin, but the Arlington Heights, Ill., native has heard a lot about it.

“They (teammates) talk about it all the time. Coaches talk about it all the time,” Christie said. “How competitive the rivalry gets. Then ever since I started getting recruited from here, I’ve watched all the games and know there is an extra flair in the Minnesota-Wisconsin games. It’s my first time being in the rivalry, and I’m super excited to go out there and represent the state.”

Hawkins’ health

Gophers point guard Elijah Hawkins, who missed the Michigan State game Thursday, remains questionable going into the Badgers game.

“We’ll see what he can do (in Monday’s practice),” Johnson said. “He was limited (Sunday). … See how it looks and see how it feels.

If Hawkins — who leads the nation with 7.8 assists per game — can’t play, Mike Mitchell Jr. and Christie will be the primary ball handlers.

Chuckle at chants

Michigan State fans tried to get inside Christie’s head with a “Max is better!” chant in East Lansing, Mich., during last week’s game. It was a reference to his older brother who played for the Spartans before being drafted by the Lakers.

“I heard them,” Cam said Monday. “It’s funny. I knew it was going to happen. We talked about it before and after the game. It was funny. I enjoyed it. It added more energy to the game.”

Recourse with refs?

A handful of head-scratching calls went against the Gophers in the 76-66 loss at Michigan State.

“We had some talks,” Johnson said when asked if he sent in plays for the league office to review. “Again, it’s a slippery slope. But I think to our guys’ credit, I never felt like they got frustrated, which was a good thing.”

Some of the questionable calls included: the light contact on Christie’s fifth personal foul, Dawson Garcia being whistled for an offensive foul when backing down a Spartans player, and a Michigan State player not being issued a technical foul for slamming the ball down after a call.

Hole in schedule

Instead of the regular home-and-home pair of games against Wisconsin, the Gophers only play the Badgers once this season.

“It does feel a little bit different to only play them once,” Johnson said.

With the Big Ten expanding to 18 teams next season, Johnson said he didn’t know how the conference might protect rivalry games such as this one in future schedules. The Big Ten has made protecting rivalry games a priority in football.

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