When Minnesota’s schedule came out several months ago, many Gopher fans must have had flash backs to the seemingly dozen or so time when the Minnesota Timberwolves could not pick the right ping-pong ball. The Gophers were selected to play Iowa and Purdue once each, with the Iowa game at home, and Purdue on the road. At first glance, many thought that Minnesota’s prospects for the season immediately took a hit. Iowa was going to awful, and the Gophers would win regardless of where they played the Hawkeyes. Purdue was going to be young and talented, but to young and not quite talented enough to win at The Barn. Fast forward a few months, and the Gophers may have won the lottery. They Hawkeyes beat both Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and Minnesota probably wouldn’t be able to beat Purdue anywhere.
We will find out tonight how the Gophers match up against one of the most surprising teams in the country. The #16/#19 Boilermakers come in to tonight’s game with a record of 21-6 (12-2 in the conference) with their last game being a loss at Indiana over a week ago. Before that, they won 11 straight, and haven’t lost at home since late December when lost by three to Iowa State, the same team Minnesota beat on the road.
Picking games based on common opponents can get out of hand very quickly, and with in six degrees of separation it is easy to justify almost any team beating the eventual national champion. However, Purdue’s two straight home losses to the Cyclones and to Wofford do show that Purdue is beatable.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, its been a while since the Gophers have accomplished what they would need to do to beat Purdue. Minnesota hasn’t beaten a ranked team on the road, when they themselves were not ranked, since 1985. All of the current Gophers were either in diapers, or not even born. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith was an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth.
I write all this because even though Minnesota matches up pretty well with the Boilermakers, and some members of the national media think the Gophers have a chance tonight, it will be something of a minor miracle.
Purdue is young and balanced. No player averages more than 12 points per game, but 9 players average more than 15 minutes and 4 points per game. E’twaun Moore struggled with consistency early in the year, but has scored in double figures in all but two conference games. In the other two games he scored 9 points. He is also an above average rebounder. Robbie Hummel is a 6’8″ forward, the best rebounder on the team, an also an excellent outside shooter (46% from three). He will inevitably cause match up problems for everyone other than Damian Johnson, assuming Johnson stays out of foul trouble.
Minnesota’s inside game will be the key to an upset. Dan Coleman once was much more active in Sunday’s win over Penn State. Unfortunately this did not translate into points. He will need to have one of his better games and hit the glass hard. Spencer Tollackson will need to play quality minutes, and at the very least pull down 5 rebounds and demonstrate that he is a threat. Jonathan Williams will need to be ready to throw his body around and make the open shot when the opportunity presents itself.
The Gopher back court is good enough to match up with just about any set of guards in the Big Ten. They may not be able to score as well as some back courts, but their excellent defense has been able make up for their occasional lack of scoring punch. However, when Minnesota is struggling on the inside, opposing defenses have made like difficult on the outside.
On talent alone, Purdue should be able to win. They have better athletes, and are not prone to mistakes. Minnesota of course forces a lot of turnovers, but so does Purdue. Purdue on occasion gives up a lot of three pointers (including 7-11 against Indiana) but Minnesota struggles from the outside, especially against athletic teams. Purdue isn’t a great rebounding team, but Minnesota has been flat out awful during several games this season.
I expect a game very similar to Minnesota’s loss at Wisconsin. Minnesota should be able to hang around, perhaps longer than Purdue is comfortable with. But ultimately, there is a reason why Purdue has a chance to win the conference title and Minnesota is playing for its post season life.
Prediction: Purdue 67 – Minnesota 61
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