7:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Tickets: Row 11, corner, upper deck
“Operation SurvivAL” has nearly come to an end, but the last mission may be the toughest. “Operation SurvivAL” has been, as I have previously neglected to explain, the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ attempt to survive the non-conference season without any bad losses without senior captain Al Nolen. Nolen, of course, has been out for several weeks with a stress fracture in his foot.
With Nolen, the Gophers would likely be undefeated and ranked firmly in the top 10. Without Nolen, the Gophers lost in relatively embarrassing fashion to Virginia. The loss at the time looked bad, but the Cavaliers have proven to be a better than bad team, and may be merely mediocre. They beat Virginia Tech on the road, and haven’t lost since they beat the Gophers. Beating the Jackrabbits on Thursday night would guarantee that the Gophers will enter Big Ten play ranked in the top 25, and would give them an 11-1 non-conference record, despite have the toughest non-conference schedule during Tubby Smith’s tenure and the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten according to Ken Pomeroy.
Now Nolen is back, but that doesn’t mean Operation SurvivAL is over by any means. In the long run, the return of Al Nolen will be extremely beneficial. He is the most sure-handed ball handler on the team, the best defender, the fastest player on the team, and the best free-throw shooter that attempts a significant number of free-throws. However, he hasn’t played since the night before Thanksgiving. Since then, Devoe Joseph returned from injury, and the team has adapted to his skill set. The team has grown used to a Nolen-less rotation. With Nolen on the court, things will be different, and anytime adjustments are made and chemistry changes, results can be unpredictable. As I have mentioned earlier, Evan Turner and John Leuer both found this out the hard way.
My biggest worry about Al Nolen’s return doesn’t have anything to with team chemistry, or line-up changes and has everything to do with the Gophers’ mental make-up. It is generally accepted that the Gophers play to the level of their competition, which is best demonstrated by their inability to build leads early in games and blow-out their opponents. They seem to take wins for granted and not play particularly hard until they actually need to to win. This lack of intensity may actually be worse among Nolen’s teammates if they expect him to pick up their slack, or if the return of the team’s best defender means they can play even more poorly and still pull out a win.
Until the team learns that they need to play hard all the time to win, and if there is that expectation that the addition of Nolen will cure all their ills, the Gophers may face a case of subtraction by addition. And South Dakota State isn’t a team to take lightly.
I know, I know, the Gophers are highly ranked, the Jackrabbits play in a town with a population smaller than The Barn, but South Dakota State could be trouble. They will bring an 8-3 record into Williams Arena on Wednesday night, with a win at Iowa under their belt. They are on a bit of a cold streak, with a win over MAC doormat Central Michigan and losses to UW-Milwaukee and Western Michigan. No, they don’t have any great wins, but they haven’t been awful either. This also seems like a good time to remind you all that the Gophers have let nearly every home opponent hang around for far too long and that, with the exception to last year, South Dakota State have played the Gophers closer than the discrepancy in their talent level would suggest is possible.
Like a lot of the Division I teams on the periphery of Minnesota, the Jackrabbits have a roster loaded with players who somewhere, deep in the recesses of their consciousness, feel snubbed by the Gophers, or want to relive an old rivalry against South Dakota native Colton Iverson. Motivation won’t be problem. Their best player, sophomore forward Nate Wolters, is the only Minnesotan on their roster. You know he will be ready to play too.
Wolters, who grew up in St. Cloud, can fill up the basket in a hurry. He averages almost 19 points, 4 rebounds, and nearly 6 assists per game. He had a season high 36 points against North Dakota State, 28 at Western Michigan, and 25 at Iowa and Central Michigan. With Minnesota’s propensity to give up some big scoring nights to guards, no one should be surprised if Wolters goes for 40, especially with his 45% three point shooting. Clint Sargeant and Chad White join Wolters in the back court. Sargeant’s scoring has improved to 13.5 points per game from 12.8 last season, but his shooting percentage has dropped. He is only making 29% of his three pointers this season, but made 41% last year. A few rough games isn’t reason enough to ignore him. White on the other hand has emerged from being a minor role player to become a deadly outside shooter, making 51% of his outside attempts and is averaging 10 points per game. Griffan Callahan is the fourth guard in the starting line-up, and like his brother Garret who scored 28 and 25 points per game, can also knock down the long ball at a 49% clip. Jordan Dykstra, a 6’8” freshman, is their only significant height, but he can even knock down the three, making 36% of his outside shots.
Minnesota’s problem areas are still obvious, with three-point defense the biggest area of concern, and the Jackrabbits should be well-prepared to exploit that weakness, especially with multiple players that can make three points. As a team, SDSU has made 39.8% of their three-pointers, good enough to rank 29th in the country. Unlike a lot of teams the Gophers have faced, the Jackrabbits attempt a sane number of three pointers, and attempt the vast majority of their shots inside the three point line, which is excellent news or the Gophers. They make only 46.5% of their two point attempts, and that number will likely be lower with Minnesota’s massive height advantage. The only other offensive statistic of note is their lack of turnovers, the second fewest in the entire country.
Their defense is a different story. They defend the three-pointer worse than the Gophers, which is no small task. They also can’t block shots. An inability to stop three point shooters and an short team with an inability to alter shots in the interior has led to the 228th ranked defense in the country.
The Gophers are a better team, and should be able to win by whatever constitutes a comfortable margin of victory. The Jackrabbits won’t be an easy out, and the return of Al Nolen alone is hardly enough to win.
What to watch for the Gophers:
How does the defense change with Nolen in the line-up? At the beginning of last season, the Gophers would press early and often, but have rarely pressed since he was ruled academically ineligible. Tubby Smith didn’t want to fatigue his players with only one reliable point guard on the roster, and the risk of cheap fouls and subsequent foul trouble kept the Gophers out of their most dangerous defense. We’ll find out Thursday night if the press will be part of the Gopher’s strategy for the rest of the season.
Who to watch for the Gophers:
It has to be Nolen, right? His stamina and his agility will be big areas of concern. If he can play around 20 minutes, shake off some rust, and avoid re-injury, it will be a successful game for him.
What to watch for the Jackrabbits:
Will they continue to play small, or will they bring what little height they have off the bench to try to match the Gophers’ height? Their best players are all guards, but it doesn’t seem realistic to have a 6’4” guard on Ralph Sampson III or Trevor Mbakwe.
Who to watch for the Jackrabbits:
Nate Wolters should get Al Nolen’s full attention. His scoring prowess is well known, but his 3.71-1 assist to turnover ratio shouldn’t be overlooked. Even if his shot isn’t falling, and especially if he is the target of the defense, he can still find ways to make his teammates better.