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Golden Gophers vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

7:30 pm (CsT) at the Puerto Rico Tip-off

Radio: WCCO Radio 830 AM

TV: ESPN U

Can they do it again? Two years ago it was #1 overall seed Louisville. Last year it was national runner-up Butler. Is UNC next? That is the question on the lips of Golden Gopher fans after the team’s surprising win, at least in the margin of victory, over Western Kentucky. Up next is what can only be described as a huge game against perennial power North Carolina.

In the win over the Hilltoppers, the Gophers played their most complete offensive game in years. Al Nolen hitting three pointers, Ralph Sampson dominating with a hook-shot his father taught him, Rodney Williams taking it hard to the rim, Mbakwe being Mbakwe, and Blake Hoffarber piling up the assists. Still, the Gophers will need to play even better to beat the Tar Heels.

The Tarheels haven’t played a meaningful game so far this season with blow out wins over Lipscomb and and Hofstra. They looked impressive in those games, but who wouldn’t? This will be their toughest test by far, and they often failed tests like this a year ago. North Carolina struggled much of last year, but still managed to make it to the final game of the NIT with an incredibly young team. They only have one senior expected to play meaningful minutes.

Like every power program, UNC didn’t take their poor season lying down. They reloaded. Leading their star-studded cast is pre-season All-American and ACC player of the year Harrison Barnes. After struggling through the exhibition portion of the schedule, he is averaging 16 points per game, one of five Tarheels in double-figures. Joining him are freshman Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall, a pair of freshman guards also averaging in double figures. Throw in Tyler Zeller, one of the most underrated big men in America and John Henson who would dominate if ate a cheeseburger or two, and UNC may be the most talented team in America.

Youth, as any basketball coach will tell you, can be a maddening thing, and North Carolina hasn’t established a floor or a ceiling yet. They made only 55% of their free-throws in their first game and 58% in their second game. That doesn’t matter when you win by 50, but in a close game those freebies can’t be missed. In their first game they had only 12 assists with 14 turnovers. In their second game they turned it around with a better than 2-1 assist to turnover ratio. Freshmen seem to be only consistent at being inconsistent.

North Carolina will be a big favorite Friday night, and they should be. The Gophers can’t match their level of talent. They may be able to match their size, but UNC probably has the edge in athleticism. In short, the Gophers will need to play close to a perfect game to have a good chance of beating the Tar Heels, unless, of course, the Tar Heels completely fall apart playing a real team for the first time this year.

The fact that this game is happening at all is almost more important than the result of this game. If the Gophers had lost to Western Kentucky they would be thrust into the loser’s bracket without a chance for a big win or a good loss. A game against the Tar Heels, win or lose, is a huge RPI booster, and gives the Gophers a guarantee of facing quality opponents in their first five games.

Who to watch for the Gophers: Rodney Williams is playing an awful lot like Harrison Barnes lately. He scored a career-high 17 points on 7-10 shooting. These weren’t just garbage points and open dunks. He made threes, drove to the basket, hit a mid-range jumper or two, and played very in control. He will need to cut down on his turnovers to truly be an impact player, and perhaps he can do that against the Tar Heels.

What to watch for the Gophers: The Gopher half-court offense looked quite impressive against the Hilltoppers, with 62.5% shooting and 53% shooting from behind the three-point line. They picked apart the defense leading to mostly open shots. That could have been due to a big height advantage, or could be because things finally clicked. If they can have a repeat performance against the Tar Heels, they should have enough fire-power to at least hang around.

Who to watch for the Tar Heels: Can it be anybody but Barnes? He is the first freshman ever to be chosen a pre-season All-American. He can do just about everything well, and is as sure of a thing you’ll find in the sports world these days. Watch now, and tell your grandchildren about it later.

What to watch for the Tar Heels: How does this team handle adversity? I am by no means predicting a Gopher win (as much as I’d like to) but I am also not predicting that the Gophers will go quietly into that good night. The Gophers at some point on Friday will go on a run or make a momentum-changing play, and UNC will have to respond. All too often they fell apart last year. They’ll need to bounce back in big moments to show they deserve their #8 rating.


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