Golden Gophers vs. Penn State Nittany Lions

1:00 pm (CST) at Bryce Jordan Center (University Park, PA)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: Big Ten Network

For the better part of a month, I’ve been claiming each upcoming game was not a must win. Those games were important, and every conference game ultimately will have some impact on a potential NCAA tournament bid, but a win wasn’t essential. Now it is. If the Gophers lose tomorrow against the Nittany Lions, it’ll be time to start hoping for a big name to come to The Barn in the NIT (the NIT is bad, but UCONN, UCLA, and UNC making a trip to Minneapolis would be nothing short of intriguing).

Every team enters the conference season with some level of optimism. For the Gophers and Penn State, that optimism was misplaced. Penn State hasn’t won at all during the conference season, and their five point loss to the Gophers was the second smallest margin of defeat. After a decent start to the Big Ten season, the Gophers seem to be on the verge of melting down. Both teams are in desperate need of a win, one for respectability, the other for a shred of confidence to build off of.

Tubby Smith seems to understand the importance of tomorrow’s game, or at least knows that a change is needed. After the blow-out loss to the Buckeyes, he said that no one’s starting spot is safe. This comment was directed more towards the lack of effort by certain players, but it should be more directed at the failure of any line-up to play productive defense since Al Nolen was ruled ineligible leading up to the Michigan State game.

In the good old days, about two weeks ago, the style of play was not dictated by the players on the court. The Gophers had a collection of interchangeable parts. Replace Sampson with Iverson, Johnson with Carter, Hoffarber with Williams or Bostick, Westbrook with Joseph, and Cobbs with Nolen.  Nolen’s absence has thrust Joseph into the starting line-up, made Cobbs the only viable point guard, and removing any real back up for Westbrook. The once balanced line-up has become starter heavy as Coach Smith  has continued to try to substitute players of similar size for each other, and frankly it hasn’t been working. If Tubby Smith is serious about shuffling the starting line-up, he needs to really shuffle it.

While the Gophers don’t have a particularly deep line-up, it still remains versatile, and there is the potential to dramatically alter the line-up decisions of opposing coaches by forcing them to match the Gophers or face the consequence.  It is time for the Gophers to go big, and if that means they will later need to go small, even better.

Despite being known as one of the better defense teams in the country, the Gophers are getting torched during the conference season, giving up 1.06 points per possession during the conference season, which ranks 9th in the conference. They have especially struggled to stop two point field goal attempts, as Ohio State so eloquently expressed last Sunday. The only real difference between last year when the Gophers were one of the best teams at stopping two point field goal attempts is the lack of size in the starting line-up. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson patrolled the lane with intimidating length, and along with Damian Johnson, gave the Gophers three of the top 40 shot blockers in the country. There were no easy two point shots, because there wasn’t any room inside to take an uncontested shot. The Gophers have essentially traded Iverson for Hoffarber, and poor team defense has been the end result.

I understand why the “Twin Towers” are gone. Iverson and Sampson were a formidable defensive pair, but that didn’t translate to any sort of offensive success. The Gophers also don’t have much size to bring off the bench. Jonathan Williams was brutal to watch, but he was at least big. If the Gophers played Iverson and Sampson, then Paul Carter and Rodney Williams would be forced to play something resembling center, no easy task for two rail-thin 6’8” guys. But just maybe going small isn’t a bad idea either, especially against the Nittany Lions.

As everyone knows by now, Penn State consists of Talor Battle and not much else. No other player scores more than 8.7 points per game. Andrew Ott is their only real post player, and he is a squishy soft 6’10” and plays below the rim, when he plays at all. Andrew Jones  is also 6’10” but is more of a slasher than a threat down low, and not a great shooter. No other player is taller than 6’7”. Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson could dominate on the inside, and none of Penn State’s interior players are equipped with the tools to punish the Gophers from going big. The offense might suffer a bit, but offense is not the problem it once was. There is even an opportunity for an effective inside-outside game. Devoe Joseph, Lawrence Westbrook, and Blake Hoffarber are all very capable outside shooters, and Penn State is completely incapable of defending the three point shot. They rank 270th in the country, allowing opponents to make 37% of their three point opportunities.

Iverson and Sampson will inevitably get tired and need to come out of the game, and will be replaced by Carter and Williams. Because of the lack of Nittany Lion size, the Gophers won’t be punished by going small either. Carter can handle David Jackson or Jeff Brooks, two Penn State players of similar build. The aforementioned Andrew Ott should be held in check by just about anyone the Gophers put on him. He really is that bad. The smaller line-up also gives the Gophers length and quickness to press, which should help in slowing down and tiring out Talor Battle who averages nearly 37 minutes of playing time per game.

With the right line-up, the Gophers can dictate the style of play and keep Penn State off balance. We’ve seen the various “moderate” line-ups over the last three games, and they just aren’t getting the job done. If Tubby wants a change, he really needs to change things up.

Of course, none of this matters if the Gophers don’t show up. No line-up, no matter how talented would have challenged the Buckeyes last weekend with Minnesota’s attitude. It was lazy and embarrassing, and completely inexcusable. The Gophers have faced off court drama over a longer period of time this season than any other team in the country. Despite all that, the season is far from over, and there is no better opportunity to pick up a much needed road win over the worst team in the Big Ten on a neutral court. Yes, the game is at Penn State, but they only have a thousand or so fans in attendance on a good day. With the death storm bearing down, they’ll be lucky to have a few hundred non-employees at the game. It is up to the Gophers to get themselves back on track.