Golden Gophers vs. Eastern Kentucky Colonels

12:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

TV: Big Ten Network

Tickets: Row 8,  corner, upper deck (or 10th row, lower deck, center court if you brave the snow)

It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and it is beginning to look like the Gophers may never blow an opponent out.  By this time a year ago, the Gophers had winning margins of 24 points, 36 points, and 30 points. This season, they have only 18 and 19 point wins to show for their efforts.

In the end, winning is all that matters, but blowouts make teams better in the long run. They allow coaches to experiment, teams get to expend a little less energy, and most importantly, they get the most important players back to the bench where they can’t get hurt. With word breaking today that Al Nolen might not be back in time for the Big Ten season, another injury could ruin the season. And with every minute a player is on the court, there is the chance that such an injury could occur.

The Eastern Kentucky Colonels should hopefully, finally, give the Gophers the blow out win they want. According to everyone who keeps track of such things, EKU is the worst team the Gophers will face all season. Sure, they have a 5-4 record. Good for them for that, until you look a little close and see that two of those wins were again Cincinnati Christian and  Kentucky Christian. Playing non-Division I teams is fine in the pre-season, but there is no excuse for playing such awful teams in games that count. It also shows a profound lack of creativity. Do the gentlemanly thing and play Centenary. Be hospitable and play Southern.

Eastern Kentucky does know the dregs of the college basketball world by the way, and not just because they are part of them. Besides those “wins” against “college basketball teams” they lost to Loyola-Illinois and Texas Pan-American (notice the hyphens piling up here), Presbyterian, and Murray State. They’ve beaten Indiana State, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, and Tennessee-Martin.

Eastern Kentucky is a very balanced team, with all five starters scoring between 8.8 and 12.9 points per game. They are also roughly the same height, ranging from 6’4” – 6’7”. Spencer Perrin, a skinny 6’5” forward, is their leading scorer, and has fallen in love with the three pointer despite a dearth of success from the outside. He had made only 4-14 three pointers this year. He made 2-17 all of last season. Josh Daniel averages 11.9 points per game. He has made five of his last eight three-point attempts and should get plenty of attention from the Gopher defense. Joshua Jones is the team’s best three point shooter at 44.1%, but he isn’t just a spot up shooter, with only half of his shot attempts from beyond the arc. Willie Cruz does most of his damage at the free throw line after slashing to the basket. He draws six fouls per 40 minutes of playing time. Minnesota native Justin Stommes continues the parade of local players returning to the state while playing for a mid-major. He averaged more than 14 points per game last year, but has struggled since missing the first three games for, say it with me now, “unspecified team rules violations.” He should be a challenging match-up for whomever is called upon to guard him. He is 6’7”, plays something of a point-forward, and can put the ball on the floor or shoot from the outside. Austin Hollins seems like the logical defending choice, but smaller or bigger players might be called on depending how successful Hollins is.

A bad record against bad teams is no accident. The Colonels are one of the worst defensive teams in the country, giving up 1.07 points per possession. If there was no free throw line or three point line, they would be considerably better, allowing opponents to make 48% of two point shots. However, it appears their two point defense is excessively aggressive, sending opponents to the free throw line at the rate of 1 free throw per every two field goal attempts. The Gophers and their inside oriented offensive strategy average this many free throws on their own. The Gophers still need some practice at the free throw line, and they will get it tomorrow. All that fouling has distracted EKU from defending three-pointers. They are just as bad at defending the perimeter as the Gophers, so Blake Hoffarber should have a good day.

On offense, Eastern Kentucky gives away too many possessions to be successful. They commit turnovers on more than one in five possessions, and rank 287th in the country at pulling down offensive rebounds. They shoot fairly, especially from the three point line at nearly 37 %, but with fewer shot attempts, that hasn’t translated into much success.

Who to watch for the Gophers:

Ralph Sampson’s struggles are starting to become a concern. His decision making in the post leaves a lot to be desired, and his disinterest or distractedness is becoming the norm. Eastern Kentucky should be a wonderful opportunity for him to regain confidence, and play with some enthusiasm. Their lack of height and any post presence whatsoever should leave plenty of room for him to operate.

What to watch for the Gophers:

This should be a blow-out by half time if the Gophers can A) make around 70% of their free throws and B) hold EKU to under 40% three point shooting. Do only one, and they should win comfortably still. Do neither, and it is Cornell all over again.

Who to watch for the Colonels:

Justin Stommes has really struggled this year, scoring in double figures only twice.  He still has big game potential. Last year he scored 20 or more points in seven games. He will need to get things back in gear for his team to have any chance against the Gophers, or to have a chance to turn their season around.

What to watch for the Colonels:

Eastern Kentucky gets to the free-throw line about as often as the Gophers, but makes over 70% of their free-throws compared to Minnesota’s 64%. They could hang around if they can get to the line often, and pick up some points while they are there.