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Golden Gophers vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

6:30 pm (CDT) at the Puerto Rico Tip-off

Radio: WCCO Radio 830 AM

TV: Streaming at Espn3.com

Another game, another above average mid-major opponent, each a little more difficult than the next.

The Gophers take on Western Kentucky, a perennial NCAA tournament team, in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-off. The “easy” games are over, at least for a weekend. North Carolina, their boundless talent, and whiny coach likely await in the second round. For the Gophers, a win over the Hilltoppers would give them a chance for a signature and season-making early season win. For Western Kentucky, a victory over the Gophers would have them well on their way to another NCAA tournament appearance.

The Hilltoppers have a storied history as one of the best non-major conference basketball programs in history. Their former coaches you know well. Clem Haskins, before coaching the Gophers and ultimately morally and financially bankrupting the program, coached and played for the Hilltoppers. Before Clem Haskins, Gene Keady coached at Western Kentucky for two seasons before leaving for Purdue. Lately, the Hilltoppers are best known for busting brackets in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. Two years ago they knocked off Illinois as a 12 seed. Three years ago they knocked off Drake and San Diego to get to the Sweet 16.

And, oh by the way, they have some talent this year too. While not particularly deep, the Hilltoppers have three players that will give opponents fits all season. Steffphon Pettigrew, Juan Patillo, and Sergio Kerusch are averaging 18, 19, 20 points respectively. Pettigrew and Kerusch can each knock down the three as well as score going at the basket. Patillo, a transfer from Oklahoma, is also averaging 12 rebounds per game and is more of a low-post player.

Coming into Thursday’s game with a 2-0 record, it is difficult to judge the quality of the Hilltoppers because their previous opponents have been anything but quality. They shelled future Gopher opponent St. Joseph’s by 28 on the road, but the Hawks then went to Penn State and lost by 9. In their second game they beat barely Division I Alabama A&M, who by many measurements was one of the 10 worst teams in the country a year ago.

In their first two games, the Hilltoppers have excelled at shooting the ball, making 32% of their three pointers and 60.9% of their two point shots. That hot shooting has not carried over to the free-throw line, where they’ve made only 52.4% of their shots this season including an almost unfathomable 24-50 performance against Alabama A&M.

The Hilltoppers are a solid defensive team, but their lack of height may be their achilles heel. Cliff Dixon, 6’10”, is their only player who has a meaningful roll on the team over 6’6”, and he weighs only 210 pounds. This has translated to ranking 247th in the country in both preventing offensive rebounds and blocking shots. They have allowed both of their opponents to collect nearly 40% of offensive rebounding opportunities.

Thursday is another big test for the Gophers, with a chance for an even bigger test on Friday. This week won’t break the season, but it could go a long way to making it. If you like rooting for a team slightly under the radar, get your rooting in now. The Gophers could be the “it” team of the early season if they catch a few breaks in Puerto Rico.

Who to watch for the Gophers: Trevor Mbakwe, the national stage is yours. After averaging a double-double in each of his first two games, he has the opportunity raise his national profile. As the Gophers’ most athletic interior player, it will be crucial for him to defend against the smaller Hilltopper interior players, especially when they drift away from the lane. He should also have a field day on the offensive glass given Western Kentucky’s difficulty in preventing offensive rebounds. Another double-double would go a long way helping the Gophers continue their hot start.

What to watch for the Gophers: Can the Gophers utilize their size advantage? If they can slow the game down and get the ball inside, the fouls should start to pile up for the Hilltoppers. If the Gophers try to play at Western Kentucky’s occasionally frenetic pace, they might not be able to keep up.

Who to watch for the Hilltoppers: Sergio Kerush isn’t the leader of a South American junta or a soccer star. He is the Sunbelt Conference pre-season player of the year. A year ago he averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds per game and is off to an even better start this season.

What to watch for the Hilltoppers: Western Kentucky got away with an amazingly bad free-throw performance in their last game. They won’t win if they leave 26 points on the free-throw line against the Gophers.

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