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February 28, 2012

Minnesota (17-12) at (14) Wisconsin (21-8)

The Minnesota Golden Gophers will play their final road game of the regular season tonight and try to salvage their NCAA Tournament hopes as they visit the Kohl Center to battle the 14th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.

This will be the 191th meeting between Minnesota and Wisconsin in history. The Golden Gophers hold a 100-90 lead in the all-time series, but they fell 68-61 to Wisconsin earlier this month at home in an overtime thriller. Wisconsin held a 13-point advantage in the second half of the initial matchup of this season, but the Golden Gophers rallied to tie it up. Wisconsin managed to win in overtime behind a strong performance from Jordan Taylor.

Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers have a very slim chance at making it to the Big Dance after their 69-50 loss to Indiana on Sunday. The defeat was the fifth in a row for Minnesota, which now is 17-12 overall and a disappointing 5-11 in Big Ten action. The Golden Gophers shot just 31 percent from the floor and made only 11 two-point field goals in their loss to the Hoosiers. Minnesota will also be looking to end another losing streak, as it has not been able to defeat a ranked opponent on the road since 1997.

Wisconsin will go as far as its star point guard Jordan Taylor can carry it this season. Taylor has averaged 16.0 points per game in Big Ten play, which ranks sixth in the league. The senior guard broke out of a slump his last time out as he netted a team-high 19 points in the win over the Buckeyes. Taylor's excellent performance on Sunday was accompanied by solid support from Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans. Berggren scored 19 points in the victory while Evans chipped in a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. Mike Bruesewitz also added a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds to round out the team- effort. If Wisconsin continues to deliver a balanced attack offensively, it will be invincible as its defense is already the best in the nation.

Just three weeks ago when these teams met it was a completely different story. Minnesota seems to be destined for the less desirable postseason tournaments, while Wisconsin is riding its most impressive outing of the year. The Badgers have no excuse to let the Golden Gophers out of the quicksand tonight.


(16) Florida (22-7) at Vanderbilt (20-9)

The Vanderbilt Commodores have a chance to tie for second place in the Southeastern Conference tonight as they host the 16th-ranked Florida Gators in a crucial league matchup at Memorial Gym.

The Gators and Commodores are second and third in the SEC standings, respectively. Vanderbilt lost 73-65 in the first encounter between the programs on Feb. 4th. The Gators trail 63-60 in the all-time series with Vandy, but have gone 22-11 against the Commodores with Billy Donovan at the helm.

Florida would secure second place in the SEC with a win tonight as its 10-4 league record is only bettered by Kentucky's perfect mark at this point. The Gators fell to 22-7 overall when they were upset by the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. Florida was held under 70 points for the third straight game in the loss, which has to be frustrating as the team's scoring offense average has been lowered to a still impressive 77.7 ppg. The Gators have had success on the offensive end this season due to its tendency to rain threes on opponents. Florida leads the nation with 10.1 makes from beyond the arc per game, but it managed to make just 5-of-23 its last time out. The Gators allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 52.9 percent from the floor on Saturday, which is the highest an opponent has shot this season. If Florida loses today, it will be tied with Vandy for the second spot in the SEC with a season finale against Kentucky this weekend.

Vandy will try to ride its dynamic duo of John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor to victory tonight. Jenkins is leading the SEC in scoring with 20.0 ppg after he has averaged 23.2 ppg in his last four games. The junior guard is on pace to become the first back-to-back SEC scoring champion since LSU's Ronnie Henderson accomplished the feat in 1995 and 1996. Taylor is the closest thing to disallowing Jenkins from another scoring title, as he is second in the conference with 17.3 ppg. VU's center Festus Ezeli will play a vital role tonight. The senior big man will need to protect the rim while Lance Goulbourne does his best to lead the Commodores in the rebounding battle.

Neither side has an overly apparent advantage on paper in this one. Vanderbilt has trotted out four seniors in its starting lineup all season, and on senior night with a share of second place on the line, expect that core to deliver one of its best performances of the season. The Commodores outshot the Gators from the floor but could not keep up at the foul line or from beyond the arc in the first bout. With the friendly rims and audience, VU will fare better this time around against Donovan's talented unit.


(4) Duke (25-4) at Wake Forest (13-15)

The fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils have an ACC title to win, but to set up a climactic regular-season finale against arch-rival North Carolina for the conference crown, Mike Krzyzewski's team must first take care of local rival Wake Forest on the road this evening.

The Blue Devils have won six straight games to stay even with the Tar Heels atop the ACC standings. The team bolstered its current win streak with last weekend's hard-fought 70-65 overtime win against Virginia Tech. With the win, the Blue Devils moved to 12-2 in conference play.

Jeff Bzdelik's second season in Winston-Salem has been marginally better than his first, as the Demon Deacons have shown flashes of solid play, coming in at 13-15 overall. The league slate has been much more challenging with Wake sitting just outside the conference cellar at a mere 4-10. The Demon Deacons are coming off their most lopsided win of the season, an 85-56 rout of Boston College, the team's second win in the last three games.

This is the oldest rivalry in the ACC, dating back to 1906. Duke holds a 159-77 advantage in the all-time series and has won four straight meetings, including a 91-73 decision in Durham on January 19th.

The fact that the Blue Devils are once again among the ACC's most efficient squads is certainly not a surprise. Coach K is a strong disciplinarian and continues to preach the fundamentals. This year's team has bought in and is flourishing as a result. Duke is averaging a steady 79.0 ppg this year (tied for 12th nationally), while shooting a healthy .465 from the floor. Scoring depth is a strength, with four Blue Devils currently averaging double figures. Freshman Austin Rivers has made an immediate impact, leading the team with 15.5 ppg, thanks in large part to his .402 shooting from behind the arc. Seth Curry can also light it up from long range, averaging 13.6 ppg. The pair have combined for 106 three-pointers on the season. Forward Ryan Kelly has range as well (.409 from three-point Range), while Mason Plumlee (10.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg) is the primary option down low.

The Demon Deacons have shown glimpses of improved play this season, but the team lacks any marquee wins to feed the fire in Winston-Salem. A lack of depth behind the dynamic duo is the primary problem, as Harris and McKie make up just over half of the team's total scoring. Harris ranks third in the ACC with a hefty 17.0 ppg, shooting .490 from the field overall, including .444 from three-point range. McKie is the perfect complement up front, averaging 15.9 ppg (fifth in the conference), while pacing the team with 7.1 rebounds per outing. Guard Tony Chennault provides limited support offensively at 9.1 ppg, while leading the team in assists (82).

The Demon Deacons have struggled against the better teams on their schedule, as Harris and McKie are simply not enough to get the job done consistently. The Blue Devils aren't about to look past Wake Forest, as this weekend's clash with North Carolina looms large.

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