Golden Gophers vs. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

6:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: Big Ten Network

Tickets: Best available- Row 11 upper deck, corner

This is South Dakota State’s Big Dance, their Superbowl, their national championship game. Every year the Minnesota game is circled on the calendar, and in the last two years at least, the Jackrabbits  have played the Gophers close only to fade in the closing minutes for surprisingly close loss.

Proximity breeds competition, especially for SDSU whose roster is usually full of Minnesotan’s who were passed over by the Gophers. This year is a bit of an exception. The roster is more diverse than past years with only two Minnesotans on the team. Even for the non-Minnesotans this game is a big deal. The University of Minnesota is still the closest big time basketball school near South Dakota, and knocking off a Big Ten school would be a real program building win for the still fledgling Division I program.

The Gophers are lucky to have escaped The Barn the last two seasons with a win. Two years ago the Gophers won 78-72, but only led by 3 with 30 seconds to play. Last year the Gophers won 74-60 which was still a much closer game that many expected. These closer than expected games are a direct result of how each team viewed them. The Jackrabbits wanted them more. Rebounding is the only statistical category that can be attributed to pure hustle. Two years ago the Jackrabbits pulled down twice as many offensive rebounds as the Gophers. Last year the rebounding margin was closer, but SDSU still had the advantage. Talent alone won the Gophers both games.

The Jackrabbits came into this season as one of the favorites to win the Summit League championship.  Like a lot of the less established conferences, non-conference records are not a good indicator of who will get the automatic bid, but things aren’t off to a great start. Coming into the game they have a 5-7 record, though only three of those wins came against Division I teams.  Losses to East Carolina and especially a home loss to Denver have to hurt. A 22 point loss to conference front runner IUPUI also set the team back. That 22 point loss was the low point of the season, but South Dakota State has hung around in almost every game, including a loss an 11 point loss to Purdue.

The Jackrabbits are a balanced team with 7 players scoring between 12 and 5.4 points per game. Guards Garret Callahan and Clint Sargent lead the way, both averaging in double figures and shoot better than 40% from the three point line. Kai Williams, the second best Canadian playing in The Barn on Wednesday night, is the SDSU’s leading rebounder at 4.8 per game. Michael Palarca averages a team leading 3.3 assists per game in a little under 19 minutes per outing.

South Dakota State is one of the worst defensive teams in the country, and should afford the Gophers plenty of opportunities to make whatever adjustments they need to offensively. The Jackrabbits are bad across the board when they don’t have the ball, giving up 1.13 points per possession, 43% three point shooting, 56% two point shooting, and ranking near the bottom in blocking shot and steals. Their opponents commit a fair number of turnovers, but these appear to be mostly unforced errors. Offensively, well, at least they are better than on defense. They average 1.05 points per game and are an average shooting and rebounding team. They are their best shooting three pointers, but do so only at a 37% clip.

South Dakota State could play their best game of the year and still not come within 30 points of the Gophers if the Gophers decide to show up. Ultimately it will be up to Minnesota to let their talent do the talking. Wednesday’s game comes right after finals, right before Christmas, and in the midst of Death Storm ’09, so the team may have problems focusing, that is if the Jackrabbits even make it into town. A focused Gopher team should win in a blow out. A distracted team worrying about getting back home should win in a slightly less lopsided blowout.

Keys for the Gophers

  • Play focused. This has the makings of a trap game. If the Gophers fall into that trap, their season is more or less over.
  • Come out fast. At The Barn the Gophers aren’t allowing opponents to hang around at all by half time, especially when the press in the early going. Expect the Gophers to turn up the intensity early on in an attempt to demoralized South Dakota State.
  • Control the offensive glass. The Jackrabbits have only two players 6’8” or taller, so the Gophers size advantage should be dominant. Rebounding is more about effort though, so the Gophers need to want to rebound.

Keys for the Jackrabbits

  • Find a big game scorer. The two closer than expected games the last two years were a product of two huge games, a 28 point effort in 2007 by Garret Callahan and a 25 point effort by Clint Sargant last year. They’ll need a similar performance to keep it close.
  • Make three points, and plenty of them. Slowly but surely the Gophers have climbed the three point field goal defense rankings, and now rank 27th in the country. Their sometimes lacking perimeter defense doesn’t seem improved, and those outside looks are there. It will be up to the Jackrabbits to make those shots.
  • Control the pace.  The Gophers won a 67 possession game by 14 last year. The 2007 game contained 63 possessions and the Jackrabbits only lost by 6. If SDSU can keep the game to around 60 possessions the final score should be interesting even if the action on the floor isn’t.