JF

If you haven’t had enough previewing of tomorrow’s first round NCAA tournament game, why not a look at the keys to the game and a prediction?

Keys for the Gophers

1. Establish an inside presence. Ralph Sampson will need to be strong with the ball, and Colton Iverson will need to be strong with his body. Sampson has been very hit and miss over the last two weeks, and if he continues to give up bad turnovers, Xavier could end up looking a lot like Ohio State in the second half of the Big Ten championship game. Colton Iverson will need to move some bodies out of the post. He is the only Gopher who can match the mass of Xavier’s front court, and if doesn’t play physical, no one will.

2. Find looks for Blake Hoffarber. If Hoffarber is getting open looks, soon everyone will get open looks. Xavier will be reluctant to double the post. Lawrence Westbrook will have room to drive. Damian Johnson will inevitably be guarded by a weaker defender. If Hoffarber disappears, the Gophers could find themselves essentially playing four on five on both ends of the court.

3. Slow the game down. I was a big fan of Minnesota’s press and run style earlier in the season, but after the loss of Al Nolen, the personnel just aren’t there. Instead, the Gophers have been running down the shot clock and have relied on excellent shooting. Xavier will want to pick up the pace and get the Gophers to run. To follow the Musketeers’ lead would be a mistake. A slow game is out of Xavier’s comfort zone (they average four more possessions per game than the Gophers) and a slow game should lead to some frustration.

Keys for the Musketeers

1. Shoot the Gophers out of the zone. Xavier makes just over 37% of their three point attempts. If they don’t shoot better than that from the outside, the Gophers will be content to pack in the zone, cut down on driving lanes, and take their chances. If Xavier can shoot closer to 45%, the Gophers will be forced to change their defensive strategy. If that happens, not only will driving be that much easier, but Xavier’s big bodies should have plenty of room to operate. Remember when the Gophers played Michigan, and DeShawn Sims was guarded one on one and Manny Harris had all the room in the world to get to the basket? I thought so.

2. Get Damian Johnson in foul trouble. The most underrated defender in the country will have his hands full, and will most likely get Jordan Crawford as his assignment. This  could be a good match-up for the Gophers as long as Johnson stays on the floor.  He is susceptible to fouls, especially of the cheap variety. If Johnson is in foul trouble, the Gophers will either have to put a much shorter quick player on Crawford, most likely Lawrence Westbrook, or will have to go with size but not necessarily speed, Paul Carter. Johnson may also be the most important cog in the Gopher offense with his passing ability. If he is on the bench, the Gophers are in trouble.

3. Get Crawford going. It goes without saying that a team’s success is dependent on the success of their leading scorer. This is especially the case for a team like Xavier in which the leading scorer shoots more than one third of his teams shots.  Crawford won’t stop shooting, even if his shots aren’t falling, and that could potentially be a lot of missed shots. There also aren’t other Xavier players accustomed to picking up the scoring slack.

Prediction:

This game could obviously go either way, and the match-ups will be intriguing. Ultimately, this game will come down to who these teams have played lately. Xavier has been playing well lately, but against inferior competition. The Big Ten conference season has prepared the Gophers better than the Atlantic 10 has for Xavier. Xavier may think they play physical, but they haven’t met Colton Iverson’s elbows. They also haven’t faced a team with the Gophers’ depth all season. Better experience and more bodies will be the difference in a grinder, with the Gophers winning 63-59.

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