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About Steve Hartman

Digital Sales Manager at Rivertown Multimedia. Huge sports fan from basketball to tennis, golf to football and everything in between.

Sweet 16 Preview: Best Match-Up, Best Player So Far, more

The first weekend of the Men’s Basketball NCAA Championship Tournament is in the books. I love the first weekend for the amount of games, excitement and Cinderella stories. But the rounds of 16 and 8 provide truly great basketball at the highest level. Some of the weaker teams have been weeded out and the cream will truly rise to the top by Sunday. Here are my thoughts for this weekend’s Sweet 16 games.

Most Intriguing Sweet 16 Match-Up – Although it’s tempting to pick UNC/Wisconsin because of the coaching match-up and amount of points that will be scored, I have to go with West Virginia vs Kentucky. It’s Bob Huggins and his 8-2 head-to-head record versus John Calipari and his undefeated Wildcats. It’s not just the intrigue of Kentucky’s undefeated season that has my attention. It’s the gritty and tough brand of basketball the Mountaineers continue to play. Are they the most polished and skilled team that seems to have the best chance to beat UK? No. But they press full court and that could cause problems for UK’s guards. The full court pressure and creating  turnovers can negate some of the Wildcats’ height and offensive rebounding. All in all I believe Kentucky wins, but it will be closer than the current -13.5 spread. West Virginia doesn’t shoot it from outside well enough (only 32% from 3pt) to really threaten UK but the contrast in styles will be interesting. One thing is for sure, WVU and Huggins will NOT be intimidated by Kentucky’s size and undefeated record.

The Elite 8 Game I Most Want to See – This was a close call. Notre Dame’s efficient offense vs Kentucky’s defense OR a rematch of last season’s epic tourney game between UK and Wichita State. Jahlil Okafor and Duke vs the size experience of Gonzaga. But my choice is Wisconsin vs Arizona. The Wildcats defense is stifling. The Badgers offense ranks #1 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Kaminsky vs Tarczewski. Dekker vs Stanley Johnson. And TJ McConnell vs Bronson Koenig. Bo Ryan’s crew won last year’s Regional Final 64-63 in OT to reach the Final Four. It was a physical, grind-it-out game that both teams are comfortable playing. The seeds were reversed in 2014. Will the result be reversed also? Badgers fans hope not.

Most Impressive Player Thus Far – Tempting to go with Jahlil Okafor. The Duke center is averaging 23.5 pts in 2 games including 21-for-27 shooting. That’s insane. But alas, it’s not that unexpected for Okafor. The player who has impressed me the most is Michigan State’s Branden Dawson. The 6’6″ senior forward carried the team emotionally and physically in the Spartans upset win over 2-seed Virginia 60-54. He is averaging 14.5 pts, 7.5 rebs, 3 blocks through two games. In the win over Virginia, Dawson’s battery mate Denzel Valentine was riddled with foul trouble, but Dawson was able to carry the load. Though his effort has been inconsistent throughout the season, he seems to have hit his stride or been motivated by March. Like his coach, Tom Izzo, Dawson seems to get what the Madness is all about in March.

I can’t wait for this set of games. Everyone will be trying to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. There are great teams, great coaches and surprisingly, senior-laded teams all vying for the “One Shining Moment.” Buckle up, fans, it’s going to be a heck of a weekend of college hoops.

Who Can Knock Off Kentucky?

Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament as heavy favorites. Some Vegas books even have them as even odds to win the whole thing. I won’t get into how incredible that is, but it’s remarkable to think that all 67 other teams combined have as good of a chance to win the tournament as Kentucky, according to some. But this current tournament reminds me a lot of the 1991 tournament where UNLV entered undefeated, rolling through its competition all year long. The only major difference is UNLV won the title the year before. Kentucky came close in 2014 losing to Connecticut in the championship game. College basketball history buffs know how 1991 ended for UNLV. That’s as close as we’ve had to an undefeated NCAA champion since 1976 and the Indiana Hoosiers.

So who could be this year’s 1991 Duke team? Here are my 5 “most likely” candidates to knock off the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Wisconsin tops the list. Their size and ability to shoot the 3 could give Kentucky problems. Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky could be the most multi-dimensional big man in the country. Kentucky’s bigs, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Anthony-Towns, are capable of defending all over the court, but can they guard “Frank the Tank” if Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker and the rest of the Badgers are hitting shots? Wisconsin wouldn’t see Kentucky until the Final Four. Also in Wisconsin’s region? Arizona. There’s a chance that IF Bucky were able to reach the Final Four, beating Arizona given their size it would give Wisconsin a preview of what Kentucky is able to do defensively. Best thing in Wisconsin’s favor: They don’t turn the ball over. Kentucky thrives on turnovers and points off those turnovers. Chance of beating UK: 35%

Arizona has the size and athleticism all over the court to play with Kentucky. Much of Kentucky’s offense comes from the offensive glass. If anyone can keep the Wildcats from collecting offensive rebounds, it’s the Wildcats, Arizona’s version. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-9 Brandon Ashley and 6-7 forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, UA has plenty of size. But I worry a little about T.J. McConnell. He’s not a great outside shooter and could struggle with the size of the Harrison twins (both 6-5). I give Arizona a shot though. They’ve been red-hot lately, including blowout wins over other tourney teams Oregon and Utah. Chance of beating UK: 30%

Duke‘s starters match-up as well as any team with UK. Unfortunately, dismissals and transfers have hurt the Blue Devils’ depth. Their backcourt, though talented with freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook, is small. They’d be giving up 8″ combined vs the Harrisons. Center Jahlil Okafor may be the Player of the Year, but Kentucky’s bigs will be ready to knock him down a peg. Duke is similar to Wisconsin in they have players who can shoot the 3 and a post who can score almost at will. Duke doesn’t take care of the ball as well as the Badgers, and don’t have as much depth.They would need to get UK into foul trouble either by Okafor, or preferably by Jones and Cook, two of the best FT shooters in college basketball. Chance of beating UK: 25%

Notre Dame is the 2-seed in Kentucky’s region. They showed brilliant offensive basketball winning the ACC Tournament after beating Duke and North Carolina. There’s no doubt the Fighting Irish can score. But could they defend well enough to beat Kentucky? A meeting between these two teams would come with a trip to the Final Four on the line. No doubt, Mike Brey’s squad would be the best offensive team the Wildcats will have faced all year. 6-5 Guard Jerian Grant has the ability to take over a game, and another 6-5 guard, Pat Connaughton can get hot from 3. If they’re firing on all cylinders they could win a shootout. Chance of beating UK: 20%

Gonzaga is an interesting case. They, like Duke, wouldn’t see Kentucky until the championship game. That being said, if Gonzaga gets through a possible run of Iowa State, Duke and whoever wins the East region (Villanova, Virginia, Oklahoma, Michigan State perhaps) they will have proven their mettle. Gonzaga, like Wisconsin and Arizona, has the size to match Kentucky. (Notice a trend here?) What I think separates Gonzaga from the rest is the play of Kevin Pangos. He’s an outstanding PG with the ability to create, score, defend and is slightly bigger than most other point guards on this list. The Bulldogs also possess size with Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski and Ryan Edwards all over 6-10. If Gonzaga meets Kentucky they’ll have earned my respect (I don’t see them reaching the Final Four) and could finally get Mark Few in the Final Four and a National Title. But because the run to get their is awfully tough I only give them a Chance of beating UK: 15%.

Badgers’ Brutal Region, Other NCAA Tourney Thoughts

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show is one of the most exciting “non-game” events in sports. Snubs, match-ups, regions, are all delivered in Christmas-like fashion with the hosts revealing the content of each region like a present. Here are my initial thoughts:

The Wisconsin Badgers earned a #1 seed in the West Regional by winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. Other top contenders for a #1 Virginia and Duke lost in their conference tournaments. The Badgers reward for a 31-3 season? A region filled with other Final Four contenders. Arizona, also 31-3, comes in at #2 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. Baylor is a very athletic, defensive team. North Carolina made a strong run in the ACC Tournament and comes in hot as the 4-seed. There are 6 teams I believe could legitimately come out of the West Region.

Kentucky has a potentially difficult 2nd round game against Purdue on the horizon. If the Boilermakers can get by Cincinnati in the 1st game, I believe Matt Painter’s squad’s size inside, including two 7-footers, could negate Kentucky’s size. I still believe the Wildcats win because their guards are better than Purdue’s and because they have more depth, but I don’t think this is the cakewalk some might.

Double-digit seed most likely to advance? I take Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are extremely talented, but no one is talking about them nationally. The past 2 years, 12-seeds are 6-8 vs 5-seeds. And if SFA can get by 5th-seeded Utah, an underwhelming match-up vs Georgetown/Eastern Washington awaits. I think SFA can win 2 games and get to Houston where a date with Duke most likely awaits. The run ends there.

Many experts are saying the West (see above) is the toughest region, but I believe the East can prove just as brutal. Top-seed Villanova has received the least amount of attention I remember a major program getting after going 32-2. Virginia’s Justin Anderson is noticeably struggling upon returning from a broken finger. When healthy the Cavaliers are America’s BEST defensive team (Yes, even better than Kentucky). Oklahoma, Northern Iowa, Louisville, and Michigan State all have great, experienced players and their coaches have 14 Final Fours among them.

Best First Round Match-ups?

– Butler 6 v Texas 11. The Longhorns dropped in the rankings late in the season, but still have a squad worthy of a long run. Their size and strength gave UK all they could handle early in the year. If Rick Barnes can right the ship, I wouldn’t be surprised to see UT pull the upset and win another game.

– Wichita State 7 v Indiana 10. The Shockers earned 1-seed in 2014, and returned the majority of their team. But this year they fall to a 7 and get Indiana in round 1. Tom Crean’s Hoosiers have plenty of offense, but can they get stops? I hope not because I want to see a Wichita State/Kansas game in the round of 32. This battle in Omaha would be epic for the Shocker fanbase. Rumors swirl of the Jayhawks avoiding WSU for years!

– Arkansas 5 v Wofford 12. Wofford has a history of performing well in the tourney, losing by single digits in 2 of their previous 3 tournament appearances. Arkansas can get up and down and their pressure could be difficult for the Terriers to handle, but if Wofford can slow the game down this could be the classic 5/12 upset.

– UNC 4 v Harvard 13. I picked the Harvard upset of New Mexico 2 years ago, and they won another upset in 2014, so I’m tempted to go with the Crimson again, but I think UNC isn’t New Mexico and San Diego State. The Tar Heels are playing too well right now. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this closer than many may think. Watch out for Tommy Amaker’s team with local products Syani Chambers of Hopkins and Jonah Travis of DeLaSalle.

– Iowa 7 v Davidson 10. Davidson is one of the country’s most efficient offensive teams. At times, Iowa has been a juggernaut scoring as well. This should be a fun game to watch with plenty of points. Davidson’s entrance to the Big Dance was exciting enough by itself.

 

NHL Playoffs: Complicating the uncomplicated

The Minnesota Wild are on pace to garner the most points in team history. They’re currently 5th in the Western Conference race based on points. However, if the playoffs started today they’d be 7th and facing Nashville (tied with Anaheim for #1 seed). Also curious, the LA Kings could gain a point, leap over Calgary for 3rd in the Pacific Division, and then be the 6th seed in the West, ahead of the Wild despite having fewer points.

If this confuses you you’re not alone. I don’t understand why professional leagues feel the need to complicate their playoff formats. Take the top 8 records in each conference, seed them based on points and play the games.

I realize the set-up is based on schedules which are weighted towards division play. And being top 3 in your division should be worth something. However, every year the division power can swing and it isn’t necessarily ideal to have worse teams make the playoffs because their division is weaker.

It’s not hard. If you have points based on wins, OT wins, shootout wins then reward those with the most points. Fans want to see the best teams in the playoffs. This isn’t a short, quick season. If someone proves themselves over the course of 82 games they deserve to be seeded accordingly.

The NHL has a marketing problem the way it is. There are few sports more exciting and gut-wrenching than the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Don’t over-complicate it.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

If you haven’t already figured it out I’m going to alert you to some inside information20150226_203516….I LOVE basketball. It’s my sport. I enjoy all sports, but my true love is hoops. And for hardwood junkies this is the most wonderful time of year.

The high school season is winding down. Section finals take place starting tonight and going through the weekend. And Mother Nature is on board if you look at the 10-day forecast.

I have fond memories of attending games as the sun heats up, the snow melts and puddles fill parking lots at local college gymnasiums. Mpls WeatherIn Minnesota, only 4  teams will finish their season with a win. For all other teams, the hope for an upset drives them. Wild things happen in March and they happen every year. Basketball, more so than many sports, allows for upsets regularly. A team can get hot, a team can go cold and upsets happen. The proximity of fans to the court and their direct impact on the game also make the Madness even more enjoyable for teams, schools, communities and fans.

Night in, night out today’s fan has the ability to do what we couldn’t when I grew up…follow along in real-time with EVERY. SINGLE. GAME. I closely watch Twitter for the scores to come in. I get real-time updates on barn-burners happening wherever I follow. Maybe I can’t attend every game, but I sure feel the energy and excitement by following @minnesotascores @mnbuckets @ryanjamesMN @MSHSLJohn @tchoopsczar and more. If these opportunities to follow the game had been around in high school, I would never have done homework.

College basketball teams have begun their quest for reaching the NCAA tournament field. Big shout out to my alma mater, the MSUM Dragons for reaching the NSIC championship game. For athletes in Division III, II, NAIA, junior college and of course, Division I, March brings a new intensity and focus. The Gophers and Badgers battle tonight in both teams’ penultimate regular-season game. The Big Ten Tournament kicks off next week in Chicago. (Bucket list item). And even though the Gophers are 6-10 in the Big Ten, winning the Big Ten Tourney gives them an automatic bid into the Dance…as unrealistic as that is it IS possible.

March Madness is as close to perfect as can be. Every team has a chance to contribute to the hysteria with a post-season run. I enjoy the fact that all prep teams in Minnesota make the playoffs, in every sport, especially basketball. It creates opportunities for more Cinderella stories. If the Madness weren’t here what would people talk about the water cooler. There’s a reason we lose so much productivity in March and it’s because people can’t help but follow the Big Dance!

Who can forget “The Shot,” Tyus Edney’s “Drive“, Bryce Drew’s half-court heave, and Jim Valvano going nuts? This is what it’s all about. This is why we watch. This is why we fill out brackets. It’s why we take off work to watch a game in which we have no stake.

So get out and enjoy some low-cost, high-drama entertainment at a local gym near you. Or sit back in your la-z-boy, pull up the cooler, and get your phone, tablet and TV ready. The sun is heating up the earth and that means Spring is here. March Madness is upon us all!

 

When Will MN Sports Fans Be Rewarded?

There’s a reason I’m a fan of Duke basketball. And no, it’s not because I’m a pretentious rich kid who fell in love AFTER the back-to-back titles of 1991-92. It’s because at a young age I enjoyed rooting for the underdog. It’s probably hard to remember Duke being an underdog, but as a 7-year-old watching the 1990 NCAA Championship I felt bad for the Blue Devils. They lost in a blowout to the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. From then on I was hooked on Duke. Over the years I grew to love Coach K, Wojo, Grant Hill, etc.

Sorry for the rambling, but the main reason I like Duke TODAY is because of their predictability. I KNOW they’ll be in the NCAA tourney. I know they’ll be a high seed. And I know every year they have a chance to win it all. They don’t always do it, but they have a legitimate chance.

Which brings me to the topic of the day. When will MN sports fans be rewarded? Last night, a buddy and I perched upon a bar stool to watch the Gophers men’s basketball game vs Indiana. Minnesota was fresh off an impressive road win at Iowa. They were finally looking relevant in the Big Ten after starting conference play 0-5. You could sense fans were ready. There was a turnaround a brewin’. (I’ll say it again, there’s no better atmosphere in the MN sports scene than Williams Arena when the Gophs are good). But alas, the Gophers bring hope, get fans excited, only to bring them back down to earth with a huge thud. In this case it was a 90-71 whooping. Defense, specifically 3-point defense, was apparently optional for Richard Pitino’s bunch.

This idea of creating excitement, manufacturing reasons to care have become almost epidemic like in the Twin Cities. The Wolves, Twins and Vikings year-in and year-out bill this as “the year” (Vikings) or “watch how exciting we’ll be” (Timberwolves) or “we’ve got some young talent, you better buy season tickets now” (Twins). But when will the MN sports fan be rewarded for believing the PR machine of our local sports teams?

It’s been nearly 24 years since the last championship parade took place in the Twin Cities. Boston has had 4 Super Bowl Championships alone in the last 15 years! Think about this. The Gopher football team played in, did NOT win, just participated in a New Year’s Day Bowl and we acted as if it was a miracle. Glen Mason went 8-5 regularly during his tenure. But a Jan 1 Bowl hadn’t happened since 1967. Someone, besides the Lynx, make it stop.

The list is too long. 1998, 2000, 2009 Vikings, 2004 Wolves, 2003 Wild, 1997 Gophers hoops (it DID happen), 2003 Gophers FB….man the local teams were actually good for a while. “What was that like?” I often ask myself.

So once again I found myself last night HOPING this Gophers turnaround was for real. And once again, the local team let me down. Build me up, only to disappoint.

Another early 90s team I latched onto because they lost in a big game….the Buffalo Bills. Maybe it’s not the teams. Maybe it’s just me.

NFL Conference Championships Predictions

I saw a cool stat the other day. All 4 QBs left in the NFL, and both teams in the CFP Championship were from the Pac 12 and Big 10.


We all know how that game turned out, as Ohio State put together a dominating performance and led the Buckeyes to a 42-20 win over Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Will the Big Ten QB’s help their teams to the Super Bowl?

NFC Championship Game

Packers at Seahawks – This game pits the hobbled Aaron Rodgers (Cal grad) vs Russell Wilson (Wisconsin, if only for 1 season) and the “Legion of Boom” Seattle defense. Rodgers looked more like Roy Rodgers than Aaron during the 1st half of Green Bay’s win over Dallas. However, he regained his form enough to pull out a  26-21 win, with the help of a questionable call. I actually think the warmer weather in Seattle will help Rodgers and Co. Last week, Seattle’s defense was dominating as always, albeit against a below-average Carolina offense that some feel shouldn’t have even made the playoffs. Seattle hasn’t played a team with a high-end QB since an Oct 12th loss to Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, unless you consider Eli Manning elite and in 2014 I do not. In between the Seattle D saw a lot of St. Louis, Carolina, Arizona (w/o Carson Palmer) and SF’s Colin Kaepernick. This will be a test unlike any the Seahawks have seen in months.

Prediction: A heavy dose of powerful running. Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy will run roughshod over the opposing defenses. Seattle’s D is strong in the secondary, but can be had on the ground. In their previous 3 losses they gave up over 100 yards rushing in each, including over 150 vs Dallas and Kansas City. Seattle has rattled off 7 wins in a row, but that streak comes to an end. Packers win in Seattle, 27-24.

AFC Championship Game

Colts at Patriots – This game has many intriguing storylines. Will Andrew Luck (Stanford grad) take the next step into being the game’s next elite QB? Do Tom Brady (Michigan) & Bill Belichick have one more run in them, or perhaps more? Will the Colts be able to stop the Patriots running game after giving up 200 yards in a 42-20 loss in Week 11? Who wins the coaching match-up, because we know Belichick will have something up his sleeve? Many are predicting the Patriots will use the beat down they gave the Colts on the ground and flip the script by coming with 2 TEs and 2 RBs, but then flex everyone out and spread the field. It’s that cat and mouse coaching game that will be interesting to watch. Andrew Luck stifled an impressive defense in Denver last week. The Colts Defense has been a surprise, giving up only 11.5 pts per game in 2 playoff matchups. If they can hold the Patriots under 24 I like their chances.

Prediction: Andrew Luck looks poised to take over the mantle as the best QB in the AFC. Manning and Brady are approaching 40. But I don’t believe Brady is ready to give up the crown just yet. (Manning gave it up the past 2 seasons with his noodle-arm performances in the postseason.) I love what Chuck Pagano has done in Indy, but Belichick is going to “Belichick.” It’s hard to bet against a NE team at home in the playoffs and personally I’d love to see Packers – Patriots in the Super Bowl. I think NE is too balanced for the Colts to shut them down. Patriots win, 31-20.

Super Bowl prediction to come next week. Thanks for reading!

Big Ten Shows Up on the Big Stage…Finally

The Big Ten has long been lauded as overrated, under-performing, and downright bad on the national scene. Coming into New Year’s Day, the Big Ten Conference was 2-3 in bowl games. But that wasn’t the story.  When January 1st came around, I looked at 4 games, Wisconsin vs Auburn, Minnesota vs Missouri, Michigan State vs Baylor & the big one, Ohio State vs Alabama, as a chance to change perceptions.

Big Ten teams were underdogs in all 4 New Year’s Day match-ups, and all 10 overall. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State had the “difficult” match-ups facing the powerful SEC, a conference so lauded by national pundits that at one point, 4 of the top 5 ranked teams were from the SEC. And no one thought Michigan State could run up and down the field with one of the nation’s top offenses. I tweeted the morning of January 1st:


Not only did the Big Ten reassert itself as a potential national power, it did so impressively. Michigan State overcame a 20-point 4th quarter deficit vs Baylor. The Spartans offense was able to play fast and score points with the vaunted Bears attack. Ohio State won against Alabama after being down 21-6 at one point. The Buckeyes ran all over the Crimson Tide, and made big plays in the passing game from Cardale Jones, starting his 2nd game EVER. Minnesota, naturally, was the only Big Ten team to lose on New Year’s Day. Wisconsin beat Auburn in a very exciting game after the Auburn kicker hit the upright on their first possession of OT.

Ohio State is playing in the National Championship game. Michigan Sate lost 2 games all year, both to teams playing in the title game. The Big Ten looks as fast, strong and athletic as most teams across the country, even if perception and the 5-5 bowl record don’t agree. Your top teams have to be elite and with the re-emergence of Ohio State, continued success of Sparty and Bucky, and a Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, the Big Ten is BACK.

College Football Can Learn From Hoops

One of the highlights of the early college basketball season was Duke at Wisconsin. Two top-5 teams battled it out at the Kohl Center as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This annual event featuring marquee match-ups of teams from each conference got me thinking: Can you imagine if Oregon had to play at Alabama the first weekend of the college football season?

I understand football is a more taxing sport and hence the cupcake and creampuff non-conference slate for many teams. But rarely do we get marquee non-conference match-ups in late August or early September. For every Wisconsin vs LSU and Michigan State at Oregon, there’s a Tennessee-Chattanooga at Alabama. College football teams understand one loss can ruin a dream of the 4-team playoff and a chance at a title. But look at the teams in the final 4, 3 with 1-loss, only 1 undefeated team. You can bet Florida State would have been a higher seed had they played at Baylor and lost a close game than squeaking out wins vs the lowly teams in the ACC all year.

Basketball teams understand that losses early don’t kill their chances. They can boost RPI, Strength-of-Schedule and other metrics the tournament committee loves by scheduling tough games in November/December because they’ll most likely get in the tourney anyway. Now with a playoff system in football, especially one that mostly likely expands to 8 teams, it would benefit all teams, and fans, to play heavyweight opponents early in the year.

Some of the more memorable moments in a season can start early. Also, we’ll have a better gauge on the teams if they play true opponents, rather than FCS and weak FBS teams. Michigan State at Oregon was a huge game early this year. The result gave us a better indication of each team’s true level. Michigan State vs directional Michigan school du jour does not help the committee determine their place among the elite.

I’d love to see college football, especially powers like Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, USC commit to games like this. The SEC/Pac 12 football weekend would be epic Can you imagine Alabama having to travel to Eugene in late August, Auburn at USC, Ole Miss at UCLA?!

The 4-team playoff has already taken what makes “March Madness” work (limited participants, controversy, selection shows). Now they just need to create the early-season drama in the same fashion. Get it done, FBS!

Badgers, Gophers Showdown for the West

It’s been a long time since fans could say the rivalry game between Minnesota and Wisconsin meant anything more than the Axe. The longest running rivalry in Division I, now the FBS, hasn’t had many moments like Ohio State-Michigan with the winner having a leg up for the Rose Bowl and/or the Big Ten Championship. But this year the winner will take home Paul Bunyan’s Axe AND a chance at a Big Ten Championship, earning a spot in the title game versus Ohio State in Indianapolis.

Badgers Rolling

Wisconsin is used to this spot. They’ve been the big brother in this rivalry since 1993, constantly beating up on the Gophers and toying with their spirit. They are the prohibitive favorite again. Heisman candidate RB Melvin Gordon has been on fire. But the play of QB Joel Stave has been a difference maker since their early season losses. Connor McEvoy struggled throwing in a marquee match-up vs LSU, but Stave has solidified the QB spot and has been able to keep defenses honest against Gordon and the running game. As usual the offensive line is dominant, as is the defense. The Badgers are #1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense. They’ve found the tradition of Bucky once again, power running and stalwart defense.

Upstart Gophers

Minnesota is in unusual territory, having a shot at a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl berth, and at minimum a Jan 1st bowl game. The blueprint for Minnesota’s success is very similar to Wisconsin’s, a pounding ground game and solid defense and special teams. However, none are at the level of Wisconsin just yet. RB David Cobb has been outstanding behind a good offensive line, but Cobb tweaked a hamstring in a 28-24 win at Nebraska last weekend. The improved secondary has been a huge plus for Minnesota. Outside of an ugly loss to Illinois, the Gophers have lost to 2 teams in the FBS Playoff, TCU & Ohio State. Minnesota comes in with an edge and feels they can win in Madison. Flawless execution are going to be needed and perhaps a huge special teams play could be the difference.

Prediction: The Gophers rush defense is 6th and the pass defense is 8th in the Big Ten. However, most fans would rather see the pass defense tested than see a motivated Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin’s defense was stout at Iowa and vs Nebraska in back-to-back wins. Minnesota is more physical than both those teams. The two teams are even in Punt Return and Kick Return avg. But MN has an edge in INTs, Punting, Kick Coverage, while WI has the better FG kicker. I don’t see the pass rush being a huge key because both teams will primarily run the ball. Since the game is in Madison, you have to like the Badgers to make another trip to the Big Ten title game and face Ohio Sate.

Wisconsin 27

Minnesota 21