January 15, 2009

UW-Minnesota set to renew rivalry

MADISON, Wis. - This is not the most heated rivalry, or even one that matches the one on the gridiron once a year for the rights to Paul Bunyan's Axe. In fact, over the past several years the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry on the hardwood has been anything like that.

Sure Wisconsin has had success over the past eight seasons. And the Gophers definitely had their fair share of good times during the mid-to-late 1990's when Bobby Jackson led them to a final four birth. But the fact remains, neither team has had much success at the same time. It is always one team or the other riding the collective coattails of a successful run.

Since Bo Ryan took over, the Badgers have only lost to Minnesota one time and that took a hot shooting, 32-point performance from Vincent Grier. Overall, UW's border rival has not won in Madison since 1995 and UW has won 13 of the past 14 meetings against the Gophers.

However, with Tubby Smith roaming the Gopher sideline now, that trend seems to be coming to a close. When these two teams meet on the Kohl Center court tonight, it's Minnesota that has a higher ranking, although UW sits only one game back of the Gophers in league play.

"They went through some coaching changes and things like that," UW senior and leading scorer Marcus Landry said. "But now that they are getting more settled in, they're on a high. Tubby's a great coach and he has some great players over there that are getting the job done."

The same Tubby Smith that led Kentucky to a national title nearly a decade ago and has three national coach of they year honors to his name has already started to turn around a Minnesota program that was in deep water after the departure of former head man Dan Monson.

In his first year at the helm, he guided the Gophers to an 11-win improvement from the year before including a miraculous win over favored Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament last spring. This season, he has his team playing great basketball as they have already beaten Big East power Louisville and have only four less wins than it did all of last season early in conference play.

"I've watched coach Smith coach at Kentucky and the way those guys played," UW senior Joe Krabbenhoft, who has never lost to Minnesota, said. "That national championship team and then all the other great teams he had, they get up in your face and they run the ball.

"But they are so disciplined, they know the game, they play the game the right way."

For the first time in almost a decade and a half, Minnesota hopes to come into Madison as a team on the rise and leave city limits by adding a notch to the left hand column of its record. In order to do so, it will have to play a Wisconsin team that has won 44-of-56 games after a loss including 27 of its past 29 games following a loss at home and is hungry to get back on the winning track after losing at Purdue.

"This is probably the best Minnesota team I've played since I've been here and they want to get us," Krabbenhoft said. "They want to beat us just as bad as we want to beat them. That's why you go out there and play every game.

"We're going to have some fun out there and it's going to be a good game."

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