#17 Golden Gophers vs.Northwestern University Wildcats

1:00 pm (CST) at Welsch-Ryan Arena (Evanston, Illionois)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: Big Ten Network

Liveblog: Starting half an hour before the game, and hopefully without panic this time.

And now Tubby Smith really has to coach a great game. Coming just three days after Minnesota’s biggest road win in a decade and four days before an equally important home game against Purdue, the Gophers face the much improved Northwestern Wildcats, a team that historically has given the Gophers all sorts of problems. Even when Minnesota was better than mediocre and Northwestern was one of the worst teams in the country, the Wildcats still found a way to win.

The Gophers have reeled off four straight wins against Northwestern, including three last season, but that last game, a 55-52 non-loss, was more of an escape that any sort of victory. The Gophers also beat Northwestern in the 2007 season, but before that the Wildcats won five straight games over Minnesota dating back to 2003. Some weren’t even close, including a 15 point home win for the Wildcats in their first match-up of 2007, and a 14 point home win in 2004. Those losses could be directly tied to the previous coaching regime for the Gophers, but in this classic trap game scenario, all those previous demons may not have been exorcised.

Northwestern comes into Sunday’s game with a surprising 8-6 record, including a win over Florida State and narrow road loss at now #10 Butler. Their other loss came on the road against the also surprising Stanford Cardinal. The Big Ten season brought the Wildcats back to reality though, and the wheels have fallen what was destined to be their most successful season in years. They have lost all four Big Ten games, including a collapse on Thursday as epic as Wisconsin’s against the Gophers. Northwestern led Purdue by 14 points in the second half, and by 11 with just over 7 minutes left, but eventually lost by two after scoring only six points over the final six minutes of the game.

The Wildcats are one of the slower teams in the Big Ten, averaging only 63 possessions per game, and much of their success is dependent on controlling the pace. Their Princeton offense is intended to run down the shot clock as much as possible. On defense they run a 1-3-1 trapping zone defense that has been much more successful at forcing turnovers than in year’s past and can be very difficult to adjust to and find passing lanes and opening for shots.

Northwestern’s style of offense should be very efficient, and create plenty of easy shots. Unfortunately for the Wildcats it has been anything but that. Only Indiana has a worse offense in the Big Ten, while Minnesota’s ranks fourth in the conference. The Wildcats manage only 1.04 points per possession. Their shooting is actually above average. They make 38.6% of their three pointers and 49.1% of their two pointer, but when they miss, they won’t get the ball back, as they rank 316th in offensive rebounding. When they do successfully attack the offensive glass, they can be awfully difficult to beat. This was the case in their win over Florida State. However, since the conference season began, their offensive rebounding like everything else has taken a nose dive, and hit rock bottom in their loss at Penn State where they pulled down only one offensive rebound the entire game. They also struggle from the free throw line, not even cracking the 65% mark. They do take care of the ball though, and rarely commit turnovers.

Northwestern’s defense has been their biggest improvement since last year. Last year’s team could force turnovers, ranking 26th in the country, but that was about it. In every other defensive category they ranked in the 200s. They can still force turnovers, and they still allow their opponents to make over 35% of their three pointers, but this is more a product of their style of defense than how it is executed. The improvement has come in holding opponents to only 42.1% shooting inside the three point line compared to nearly 56% last year. They block nearly 4 more shots per game, and steal the ball almost as often as the Gophers.

It would still be a major upset if Northwestern somehow beat the Gophers, but this is anything but a gimme game. The Wildcats are improved, have found better players for their system, and have shown that they can beat more athletic teams on their home court. The Gophers need to be careful.

Keys for the Gophers

1. Set the pace from the opening tip. Northwestern is more than happy to have a low scoring game, and will try to lull the Gophers to sleep. More importantly, if the Gophers push the ball up the court it will prevent the Wildcats from setting up their maddening zone defense.

2. Get the bigs going. Last year in Evanston, Spencer Tollackson didn’t miss a shot on the way to 19 points. There are gaps in the zone, and Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson can find them, they should have a big day.

3. Jump out to an early lead. Because Northwestern plays at such a slow pace, they struggle to make come backs. An early lead would also give the Gophers a greater margin for error, as their minds may be elsewhere.

Keys for the Wildcats

1. Crash the offensive boards. The Gophers are clearly susceptible to lapses in their defensive rebounding, but can the Wildcats capitalize.

2. Make early three pointers. If the Wildcats are shooting well from the outside, it will force the Gophers to play tight perimeter defense and open up the lane to cutters for easy lay-ups.

3. Get back on defense. If Northwestern can’t set up their zone defense, they can’t win.

Key Players for the Gophers

1. Jamal Abu-Shamala always seems to have big games at Welsch-Ryan Arena. If his jumper is falling, Northwestern will have a long night.

2. Damian Johnson won’t need to post up on offense, and his slashing style should be well suited to attack the zone defense.

3. Devron Bostick’s abilty to spot up and shoot and attack the basket will be difficult for the Wildcats to defend.

Key Players for the Wildcats

1. Craig Moore is Northwestern’s best outside shooter, and if he gets going he is one of the best in the conference. In November he made nine three pointers on the way to 31 points against Brown.

2. Kevin Coble leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding, and can score inside and outside.

3. John Shurna, a 6’8” freshman gives Northwestern a big body with a decent shot.

Prediction: The Gophers are undefeated in trap games under Tubby Smith. He won’t let them look forwards or backwards on Sunday, and it should lead to a comfortable Gopher win. Gopher 77  Northwestern 59.

Your Prediction: [poll id=”20″]