7:30 pm (CST) at the Anaheim Convention Center
Radio: WCCO 830 AM
TV: ESPN 2
And now the season really begins. Sure those three other games count, but the outcomes were never in doubt and the results would have only mattered had the Gophers lost, and if they had, you wouldn’t be reading this and I would be wondering why I continue to root for Minnesota teams.
This weekend will tell just about all we need to know about the Gopher basketball team until January. By sometime very late Sunday night, we will know if the Gophers are ok, good or great. If the Gophers win the 76 Classic, they will most likely have defeated two ranked teams, and will raise their national profile. Think of the impact of the Louisville win last year, then multiply it several times. There was plenty of reason to be skeptical about Minnesota’s win last December. Louisville was struggling early in the season, had played a game less than 48 hours before, and Al Nolen played the game of his life which has not yet been replicated. The Gophers soon reverted to the slightly above average Big Ten team that they were. The win helped the Gophers get to the NCAA tournament, but it wasn’t program changing and the success from that afternoon didn’t have much carry over effect.
Three wins this weekend will be a different story. The 76 Classic is already being heralded as THE Thanksgiving tournament this season with four ranked teams, two mid-major projected conference champions, and Texas A&M and UCLA. When the Aggies and UCLA fall into the “other” category, it is an impressive field. The media will swarm, the off the court issues will be forgotten, and the Gophers will become something of a lock to make the NCAA tournament barring the always possible epic Big Ten Collapse.
Before any of that can happen they will need to beat Butler, and it won’t be easy. The Bulldogs are a mid-major in conference only. They have excellent players, a great up and coming coach, and they are located in the heart of one of the nation’s basketball hot beds, Indianapolis, Indiana. If they can get to the Final Four this year, in Indianapolis, the Butler will replace the Hickory and Milan in the basketball psyche.
Despite the massive expectations and top ten ranking, the Bulldogs have been thoroughly mediocre so far this season. They beat Davidson, the same Davidson that doesn’t have any Curries on the roster, by only 11. They followed that up with a 13 point win at Northwestern, the same Northwestern that is without its two leading scorers from last year, and they squeaked by Evansville with a four point win. They just haven’t been impressive.
Butler plays a slower, grind it out, make the most of every possession on both ends of the floor style of basketball that any fan of Big Ten basketball should know and love. They play a tight man to man defense, switching at every opportunity. On offense they score just over half their points from inside the three point line, about 30% from three, and 29% from the free throw line. Their scoring prowess at the free throw line ranks 16th in the country. For comparison purposes the Gophers score only 16% of their points at the free throw line.
While defense has been Butler’s trade mark, they aren’t exactly shutting down their opponents. They are allowing about .91 points per possession, which is above average, but it pales in comparison to Minnesota’s stellar .73 points allowed per possession. Butler really excels defensively when they are able to limit keep their opponents off the offensive glass and off the free throw line. They also force an above average number of turnovers, mostly off of steals, and defend three point shots better than the majority of teams. They’ve been good, but not great, and will have to really pick up the intensity if they hope to live up to the considerable hype.
Offensively Butler will remind a lot of you of Wisconsin, style wise at least. They get more than their fair share of free throws and don’t turn the ball over. They haven’t faced a defensive team like the Gophers yet, so we should know early if they take care of the ball, or if no one has taken the ball from them. The Bulldogs don’t shoot the ball particularly well, making only 43.2% from inside the three point line (254th in the country) and make only 34% of their three pointers.
This is definitely a winnable game, if the Gophers execute and don’t make stupid mistakes. Butler won’t give it away, but it is there for the taking.
Keys for the Gophers
- Contain the three headed monster. Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward each average in double figures. Hayward and Matt Howard both average around 8 points per game. After those three, the talent level falls off. Willie Veasley is averaging around nine points per game but is really a one dimensional three point shooter. After the top four scorers, no averages better than 6 points per game. If the Gophers handle the top three, there isn’t anyone left to pick up the slack.
- Al Nolen needs to be decisive. Getting past defenders has never been the problem with Nolen, it is deciding what to one he beats his man. A hard driving dime dropping performance will free up plenty of space on the offensive end, and more importantly, get Butler into foul trouble.
- Get off to a fast start. Luckily, Butler isn’t likely to run them off the court even if they do get off to a slow start, but that slow start will have to be overcome, and against a team with Butler’s defensive reputation, that won’t be easy.
Keys for the Bulldogs
- Find a fourth scorer. This could mean Willie Veasley gets hot from the outside. It could mean someone else steps up. Someone will need to though, as Minnesota’s big three defenders, Damian Johnson, Ralph Sampson III, and Al Nolen could create big problems for Butler’s big three.
- Make and take the open three pointer. The Gopher are starting to cut down on the number of three pointers allowed, but the outside shots that are taken are still finding a way to go in.
- Limit transition opportunities. The Gophers can grind it out with anyone, but with this roster they would rather get out and run. Rodney Williams’ dunks have been able to ignite major rallies and completely swing the momentum of the game. Butler will want to keep it boring.