There was a time when “The State of Hockey” would pause their collective poke checking, often because it was too cold outside, and gather in living rooms around Minnesota to listen or watch their beloved Gophers take on their opponents in one of the best basketball enviroments in the country. Basketball never has and never will replace hockey in Minnesota’s collective conscience, but you will be hard pressed to find anyone in Minnesota over the age of 20 who doesn’t have fond memories of listenening to Ray Christansen’s warm voice while an icy win blew outside.
A lot has changed in the last 1o years, but The Barn has stood strong, and Minnesotans have waited patiently for the old building to come alive again as an Alberta Clipper sweeps through the state.
A controversial coach, well thought out harassing taunts, even a Star Tribune article about the Gophers before game day, temperatures plunging, and a national telvision audience: the long wait may be over. A win over the #9 Indiana Hoosiers tomorrow night could restore Gopher Basketball to its rightful place as the North Star State’s favorite distraction.
Gopher basketball fans have been waiting a long time for Thursday night’s game. Not only will a nationally ranked team come into Williams Arena, but it will be nationally televised, and most importantly, winnable. For whatever reason, Indiana teams have consitently struggled at The Barn, losing 8 of their last 10. And who could for get the 50 point Gopher win in 1994?
Indiana comes to Minneapolis with a perfect conference record and 14-1 overall. However, their three Big Ten wins, including last Sunday’s 4 point home win over Illinois, have come against atrocious competition. They didn’t face many strong teams in the non-conference season, with their most impressive win coming against a Southern Illinois team that has since fallen on very hard times. Like many teams, this still relatively early season ranking is based more on tradition that triumphs.
That isn’t to say that the Hoosiers don’t have the talent to be worthy of their ranking. Freshman sensation Eric Gordon could be the #1 overall pick, depending on whether the Minnesota Timberwolves want another undersized shooting guard. Joining Gordon in the first round of the draft will be Indina forward D.J. White. No longer the young big man who struggled to live up to expectations, White has been putting up monstrous numbers, averaging a double double with season highs of 29 points and 22 points. Gordon may get the accolades, but it is White who wins games. After the two superstars, the talent level obviously drops off, but not much. Jordan Crawford would be a lock for Big Ten freshman of the year if Gordon wasn’t around. Armon Bassett, another talented guard, has been slowed by an ankle injury but is still expected to be a factor.
Because of Indiana’s sheer number of talented players, there are bound to be match up problems. The Gophers won’t be able double team White, because the Hoosier back court can shoot. The Gophers can’t rely on a zone defense for this reason, as well as the inevitable rebounding problems.
So do the Gophers stand a chance? Of course they do!
For whatever reason, the Gopher man to man defense has been very successful at frustrating opponents and forcing turnovers more than the full court press. The trio of Lawrence McKenzie, Lawrence Westbrook, and Al Nolen should be enough to slow down Gordon. He will still get a lot of points, but if the Gophers play solid defense, he won’t win the game by himself. Damian Johnson should also get a chance to slow down Gordon, particularly if it is a slow paced game.
The key to the game (and certainly a recent theme of this blog) will be keeping the rebounding margin within reason. The Gophers will need to agressively attack the glass on both ends of the court. The Gophers have less talent and are less athletic, and probably won’t shoot as well as the Hoosiers. However, with significantly more possessions from offensive rebounds and limiting Indiana to one shot, the Hoosier’s advantages might not matter much.
For this to happen, Jonathan Williams will have to play productive minutes. He is the only wide body the Gophers have with a shred of athletic ability. Williams must avoid fouls and not draw attention to himself as he tries to spike the ball and opponents’ heads out of bounds. I’ve given up on Spencer Tollackson getting off the floor when he tries to jump, but at the very least he needs to push his man out of the way so another Gopher can slide in and get the board.
Bad Gopher teams have beaten good Indiana teams for years. Statistics, talent, coaching, none of it has mattered, and against my better judgement, I don’t think anything that I have written about in the last few paragraphs will matter either. There is a reason why road teams don’t win in the Big Ten, and why hardly anyone beats the Gophers in The Barn (except last year of course), and that reason is the crowd. And tomorrow night, as Williams Arena returns to its rightful place in the basketball arena parthenon, the entire state will finally be able to watch and be reminded that for a few hours each week, the state of hockey is all about basketball.
Prediction: 74-71 Gophers. Bring your cell phone, but don’t rush the floor.