JF

Golden Gophers vs. Purdue Boilermakers

6:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

TV: ESPN

Tickets: Row 12, corner, upper deck

Hey, look at that, more off court nonsense. Let’s get this out of the way. If you have been living in a cave well off the grid (where every Gopher fan wishes they were) you may have missed the latest controversy in the widening gyre that is the Golden Gophers basketball program that can only be described as stupid. Trevor Mbakwe stupidly decided to send an innocuous facebook message to an ex-girlfriend (he was previously stupid enough to call her so many times that she filed a restraining order). She stupidly decided to call the police even though the message showed more benevolence than malice. The police stupidly arrested Mbakwe for violating the aforementioned restraining order. Luckily, the only non-stupid person in this whole situation is Tubby Smith, who wisely chose not to suspend Mbakwe for his stupidity, but will sit out the star power forward for at least the first several minutes of Thursday’s game against Purdue. It shouldn’t come as surprise that chasing down these sorts of stories is such a chore that members of the media get sick of this stuff too. Needless to say, this isn’t an ideal way for the team to prepare for what is the most important game of the year to date.

The Gophers and the Boilermakers find themselves at opposite ends of the Big Ten standings, but those places in the standings have more to with the team’s opponents than their quality of play. Purdue has been blowing out everyone they have faced in the conference season, but they haven’t played anyone worth while in either the Big Ten or the non-conference season. Beating up bottom feeders (Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, and Penn State) is great and all, but playing in the unfriendly confines of The Barn should be by far their biggest test of the season. Meanwhile, the Gophers barely beat Indiana amongst more swirling off court controversy, and have three single-digit losses in three of the toughest venues in the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State). Minnesota’s average deficit with less than a minute to play in these games was only four points. Winning isn’t easy on the road in the Big Ten, so these losses aren’t only not bad, but not unexpected. However, if it is indeed that difficult to win on the road in the Big Ten, the Gophers need to pull out a win against one of the better Big Ten teams, and Purdue is their first opportunity.

Despite beating up on a soft schedule (49th toughest according to kenpom.com compared to Minnesota’s 13th toughest), the Boilermakers are putting up some amazing numbers. They have the second best defense in the country, holding opponents to .82 points per possession. Matt Painter’s gimmick-free defense relies on pressuring shooters into bad shots (12th best field goal defense in the country) and tracking down all those rebounds off of missed shots (31st best defensive rebounding team in the country). It is as simple as it is effective. As long as you have the ball, you will have someone in your face.

While defense has been Purdue’s trademark, offense had been something of a stumbling block, until this season. The Boilermakers, even without the service of Robbie Hummel, have the 24th best offense in the country, and have been playing faster than any other season in the Matt Painter Era. They succeed mostly because they don’t commit turnovers and they knock down 38% of their three point attempts. This should obviously be a concern for the the Gophers. Oddly, Purdue struggles inside the two-point line and is a below average two-point shooting team.

I mentioned that it is odd that Purdue has difficulty scoring inside the three point line because they have two of the most dynamic offensive players in the country. JaJuan Johnson averages 19 points and 8 rebounds per game, and can knock down 18 footers, and has even made 4 three pointers this season. E’Twaun Moore also averages 19 points and 6 rebounds per game, and has made 42% of his three point attempts. After those two, the talent level really drops off. The Gophers would be well advised to put into place Wisconsin rules. Hold Moore and Johnson relatively in check, and don’t let anyone else beat them.

The individual match-ups may actually favor the Gophers. Ralph Sampson was dominant in the home game against the Boilermakers, and Minnesota’s three big men are better than Purdue’s two. If Johnson gets in foul trouble for the Boilermakers, there isn’t really a viable back-up. Al Nolen and Rodney Williams will likely take turns guarding Moore. Ryne Smith, a 6’3” shooting guard isn’t particularly fleet of foot, and Hoffarber should be able to hang with him.  Lewis Jackson’s quickness could cause the Gophers problems, but he is more allergic to offense than Al Nolen.

A year ago, the Gophers dropped Purdue in the Big Ten tournament by a cool 27, which almost made up for a heart breaking one point loss in The Barn in a game that would have righted the Gopher ship. Minnesota is once again in desperate need of something positive and actually basketball related. A loss, particularly a blowout loss, would send the season careening out of control. If the Gophers win, they’ll be right back in the conversation for a top 4 finish in the Big Ten, and will have weathered a rocky start to the Big Ten season; a rocky start that was both inflicted by the schedule makers and themselves.

Who to watch for the Gophers:

Colton Iverson will get his first start in weeks with the Mbakwe mini-suspension, and should make JaJuan Johnson work on both ends of the court. He scored 11 points against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament last season. While he has struggled lately, he is more than capable of a big game, especially when he has a height advantage over his opponents. A move to the starting line-up may be exactly what he needs to regain some confidence.

What to watch for the Gophers:

After the loss at Ohio State on Sunday, there were some not so subtle hints from a few of the Gophers that they will be picking up the pace, pressing more, and de-emphasizing the half-court offense. If that is true, it is about time. Purdue has one of the best lock down half court defenses in the country, and the Gophers won’t be getting any open shots. There best chance is to get shots up before the defense is set and hope for the best.

Who to watch for the Boilermakers:

Ryne Smith is the most likely “other guy” to beat the Gophers, especially because of his outside shooting. He has scored in double figures in each of the last four games and has made 18 of his last 27 three pointers.

What to watch for the Boilermakers:

Purdue has rolled out a four guard line-up on occasion this season, and we may see that tomorrow. Purdue can’t compete with Minnesota’s size, but their quickness could force the Gophers to go small too.