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Golden Gophers vs. University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

7:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: Bigtennetwork.com (Streaming for $2.99)

Tickets: Best available- Row 11, upper deck, center court

It has been pointed out many times here and by many others elsewhere that Gopher basketball is the perfect distraction from the cold dark winters that embrace Minnesota for seemingly months on end. After a tumultuous week, the Gopher basketball program will ironically provide a distraction from itself.

Trevor Mbakwe is out until his legal situation is clarified. Devron Bostick is suspended for a rules violation (most likely academic), and Royce White thought he was too cool to pay for some merchandise at Macy’s (dude, it is Macy’s, you can do better). With so much negative news swirling about the team, an actual (exhibition) game could not occur at a better team.

In situations like this there is always the possibility that the off court controversy could carry on to the court and lead to poor concentration and lack-luster play. Don’t count on it Thursday night.  The core of Minnesota’s NCAA tournament team is back, including senior leaders Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson as well as the ever vocal Paul Carter. These three will not let off court issues spill on to the court. Tomorrow night will provide an excellent opportunity for them to show why Tubby Smith has entrusted them with the leadership of his team.

There is, of course, basketball to be played. The Gophers kick off the exhibition season against the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. The sometimes hockey power house and reigning Division II football champion does have a basketball team, and by Division II standards, they aren’t that bad. Last year the Bulldogs finished with a 20-11 record, good enough for fifth in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.  Bringing everyone back except leading scorer John Vaudreuiel, the Bulldogs expect to have another successful season.

Gopher keys to the game:

  • Show the fans, coaches, and themselves that the off the court issues are just that, off the court. Make smart decisions, play as a team, and put in maximum effort. In an exhibition game, especially the first exhibition game, measuring those factors can be a bit of train wreck. Play is often sloppy and players are not used to working with each other. No one is asking for perfection. Any troubling issues should be obvious. Hopefully we won’t see them.
  • Correct the outside shooting issues. Last season the Gophers were one of the worst three point shooting teams in the country, and they knew it. By the end of the season, they were reluctant to take even open outside shots, which allowed defenders to pack the lane and prevent any inside scoring. Blake Hoffarber is healthy. Justin Cobbs showed an excellent shot during Tubby’s Tip-off. Even Damian Johnson started to show some confidence from mid-range and beyond towards the end of last season. The shooting will need to improve for the Gophers to have a break through season, and the sooner the better.
  • Find a power forward. Minnesota came into the season with great depth, and losing any two players would not have been detrimental to the team’s success. However, when those two play the same position, what was once depth is now a shallow hole. Luckily the Gophers still have plenty of bodies to fill the power forward position, though none are true power forwards. Damian Johnson, Ralph Sampson III, and Paul Carter should all get some time there. When they do though, the bigger question may be who becomes the back-up center and small forward.

Bulldog keys to the game

  • Find a replacement for John Vaudreuiel. The now graduated forward led his team in scoring 17 times last season and in rebounding 11 times. That is a huge hole to fill, but there are some players ready to step up. Brian Sykora averaged more than 15 points and nine rebounds per game. Steve Klass made 73 three pointers last season. Freshman Jake Hottenstine nearly led his team to a state championship in Wisconsin and received some Division I interest even though he looks like a five year old.
  • Get off to a fast start. The Bulldogs won’t have enough fire-power to make any comebacks, so they’ll need to avoid an early deficit. In their first exhibition against University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, they stuck around and only trailed by four at half-time. They ran out of gas after that, but playing a Division I team close for 20 minutes must be a confidence builder.