Golden Gophers vs. Ohio State Buckeyes

1:00 pm (CST) at Value City Arena (Columbus, Ohio)

TV: Big Ten Network

The departure of Devoe Joseph and the subsequent struggle to beat a horrible Indiana team has revealed what may be the unfortunate reality. These Gophers just aren’t very good. Only Blake Hoffarber can make an outside shot. Only Trevor Mbakwe is a consistent scoring threat. Only Al Nolen can take his man to the basket. That doesn’t mean they won’t win games or make the NCAA tournament. They’ll just have to out work and out hustle the rest of the Big Ten to get there.

I didn’t start this blog because I expected the Gophers to win every game. Neither I, nor anyone in the history of the known world became a Gopher fan because they were looking for a winner. Almost all of us follow this team because of an educational choice or a geographic accident. And that is why I can’t quite understand the panicked hand-wringing or the slap-dash misery filled columns of the schadenfreude local media. The Gophers aren’t a national title contender? Oh no! The Gophers aren’t a Big Ten Title conder? The sky is falling!  One of the worst teams in the Big Ten almost beat the Gophers? It is the end of the world!

We don’t accept it if the team quits, so why should we quit on the team?  The Gophers are down to ten players. Ten young men have made the choice to represent the University of Minnesota, and the entire state. They chosen to play basketball, but they’ve all chosen to give up any semblance of free time, to cram their days with practice, class, studying, more class, more practice, cross country travel, and dealing with our expectations and criticisms. Forget about going to that party with a game the next day or sleeping in with a 6 am practice. They are busy with the equivalent of a 40 hours a week job. So no, I won’t be quitting on the Gophers, as long as they don’t quit on themselves. And I don’t see this team quitting any time soon.

Something happened at halftime of the Indiana game. For the first time since Puerto Rico, the fire returned. Al Nolen, showing the leadership that the team desperately needs, willed the team to victory. Whether he was diving on the floor, wrestling for rebounds, or desperate gasping for air, he was not going to let his team lose, and they didn’t. For the Gophers to have a successful season, they’ll need to earn it. We won’t see any blow-out. I doubt we will see many efficient offensive sets. What we should see is plenty of players doing whatever it takes to win, floor burns and all.

Even with great effort and a great offense, the Gophers will face a tall task in Sunday’s game against the #2 ranked Ohio State. The Buckeyes have it all including a show stopping inside force, and intimidating defender, multiple outside shooters, and a willing distributor. Those pieces have formed what I would have to call the best team in America. I’ve seen Duke play in person, and they don’t have fire power to beat Ohio State when they Buckeyes are at their best. No one does.

It is almost silly to engage in the typical breakdown of OSU’s strengths and weaknesses, because those weaknesses are only relative to their own strengths, and don’t compare to their opponents. The Buckeyes rank in the top five in the country in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, preventing steals, forcing turnovers, and getting to the free-throw line. They rank in the top 25 in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, two-point shooting, three-point shooting, and rank 26th in forcing turnovers. Yes, they are just that good. But they aren’t unbeatable. In this era of college basketball, no one is.

Ohio State comes in to Sunday’s game fresh off 73-68 escape against Iowa, you know, the same team that lost by 10 at home against South Dakota State. In their near upset, the Hawkeyes didn’t provide a Rosetta stone enabling the rest of the Big Ten to decode the secrets to beat Ohio State, but they did reveal some clues, and these clues actually play into the Gopher strengths.

Iowa out rebounded the Buckeyes by three on the offensive glass and forced 15 turnovers. The Gophers are the 12th best offensive rebounding team in the country, and should have more shot attempts than Ohio State. Iowa also forced their way to the free throw-line, making 11-14. Ohio State only made four free-throws. Finally, the Hawkeyes let Jared Sullinger have his big game, and kept William Buford (7 points), David Lighty (12 points), and John Diebler (14 points) in relative check. If the Gophers can control the glass, get to the line, and get out on shooters, they have a chance.

They always have a chance. Strange things happen almost every day in the world of college basketball, and no team has gone undefeated since 1976. The Gophers have nothing to lose. This game has been written off as a blowout loss since Sullinger signed with Ohio State. If Minnesota loses by a lot, it was expected. If they win or even keep it close, they’ll have something to build off of, and a little positive momentum is exactly what this team needs.

What to watch for the Gophers:

Can the Gophers defend Jared Sullinger without completely abandoning the outside shooters? Minnesota has the biggest front line the Ohio State freshman phenom has faced all season, and if any team can get away with occasionally letting their defenders go one on one against him, it is the Gophers.

Who to watch for the Gophers:

Ralph Sampson has a nasty habit of vanishing when the Gophers need him most.  He will need to tire out Sullinger on both ends of the court, use his height advantage, and finally play with some fire for more than brief stretches.

What to watch for the Buckeyes:

How can Ohio State defend the Gophers, especially without fouling? Their , but Trevor Mbakwe is a bull in a china shop near the rim, where fouling is the only viable defense. The Gophers need to attack the rim to score, and if the Buckeyes are determined to stay out of foul trouble, the Gophers might find their path to the basket less impeded than they expect.

Who to watch for the Buckeyes:

David Lighty is the kind of player that gives the Gophers fits. He can beat most defenders off the dribble to get to the basket. He is a good passer if the Gophers try to collapse on him when he gets in the lane. If they are afraid to face guard him, he’ll knock down a three pointer or three. Al Nolen may be the only player who can defend him, which creates scary defensive match-ups elsewhere on the perimeter.

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