Golden Gophers vs. Northwestern Wildcats

7:30 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)

TV: Big Ten Network

Tickets: Row 12, corner, upper deck

It is hard to believe that just a few months ago there were actually complaints that the Gophers had too much depth. People were questioning why certain players were not being red-shirted and why others seemingly were receiving too much playing time. Now, one transfer and two injuries later, the Gophers are down to just eight scholarship players, three of whom are freshmen.

This is hardly the first time in the storied history of the Golden Gopher basketball program that we have faced untold adversity due to attrition. In 1972, following the infamous head-stomping incident and subsequent season long suspensions, the first “Iron Five” found a way to not just survive the rest of the Big Ten season, but to win the conference championship. In 1986, following erroneous sexual assault allegations and more season ending suspension, the second “Iron Five” wasn’t as successful as their forebears, but they  did manage to beat a heavily favored Ohio State, with the five remaining players on the court for 198 of 200 possible minutes (a few football players were added to the team “in case of emergency”).

The 2010-2011 season has not fallen victim to sudden catastrophe, and Minnesota’s roster dwindling hasn’t been as self-inflicted as the two “Iron Five” teams, but the remaining Gophers face a tall task just to make the NCAA tournament, let alone meet the pre-season expectations.

Flexibility will be key for the rest of the season. Having eight scholarship players gives the Gophers at least a few options, and the four remaining starters still have more than enough talent to win a few games. They’ll have to take on new and expanded roles. The freshmen will have to grow up, and do so faster than they, and the coaching staff, were expecting.

Blake Hoffarber will shift over to point guard, where he played most of the second half against Michigan and where he has played sparingly throughout his career. Maverick Ahanmisi will see more playing time than many are comfortable with, but he has shown that he can make an open jumper and is a capable ball handler as long as he stays calm and under control. Don’t forget that he scored five points against Michigan, and five points was ultimately the margin of victory. Austin Hollins will need to use his length and versatility as the primary back-up shooting guard and small forward. He has shown flashes of brilliance slashing to the basket and has athleticism that could make him Minnesota’s best perimeter defender. Most importantly, Chip Armelin will need to stay energetic and under control, handle the ball a lot more, and continue to have a flair for the dramatic with well timed steals.

An injury in the back court rarely impacts the front court, but most teams aren’t down to just eight players once they lose their starting point guard. There is a very real chance, especially on nights when the freshmen are playing like freshmen, that Tubby Smith will play all his experienced players at once. This will be even more likely in the event of another injury or foul trouble. Without enough reliable guards, the only option is to go big or go home. We could see Colton Iverson at center, Trevor Mbakwe at power forward, Ralph Sampson at small forward, and Rodney Williams joining Blake Hoffarber in the back court.

Line-ups following Nolen’s injury could be interesting to say the least, but interesting is not the goal at this point. The Gophers need to find a way to win at least five more games, and Wednesday should give them a decent chance to start the next chapter of this way too eventful season on a positive note.

No, this won’t finally be Northwestern’s year, and they’ll need to pick up their game to even make the NIT. The Wildcats bring a 3-5 Big Ten record into The Barn, with their wins coming against the bottom three teams in the Big Ten. They beat no one of consequence in the non-conference season (apologies to Creighton, but it isn’t the late 1990’s anymore). In their games against the better teams in the Big Ten, they lost twice by single digits to Michigan State, and were shelled by Purdue, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Northwestern has one of the better offenses in the country because of the accuracy and sheer volume of their outside shooters. The Gophers will need to deal with another team that will unapologetically attempt more than half of their shots behind the three point line. Unlike Michigan, NU can actually shoot, and is the 12th best three point shooting team in the country and the 38th best two point shooting team. They also are allergic to turnovers as well as offensive rebounding, so they don’t really gain or lose any extra possessions.

The Wildcats’ real problems have come on defense. They still run a 1-3-1 zone, but don’t put nearly as much pressure on the ball handler as they did when Jeremy Nash roamed the perimeter to pick off easy passes. If they don’t steal the ball, it will be going in the basket. NU ranks 269th in defending both two point and three point shots. For a bit of perspective, their overall field goal defense sandwiches them between St. Francis of Pennsylvania and Jacksonville State in the national ranking.

The Wildcat roster should be familiar to anyone who has followed Big Ten basketball over the last few years. Mychal Thompson, whose made up nickname I will never acknowledge, is ostensibly a point guard but is much more interested in shooting. Like just about every player for Northwestern he is a dangerous shooter. John Shurna is still one of the better offensive players in the Big Ten, but has been hampered by an ankle injury for weeks. Drew Crawford’s development has plateaued, but is still an athletic scoring threat. Luca Mirkovic is still a showboating idiot with sharp elbows and deserves to be booed mercilessly. JerShon Cobb could develop into the best Northwestern player in decades, and has a 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. No one is a great or even adequate defender.

The  “Iron Fives” are two of the most memorable teams in Gopher basketball history. They laid everything on the line, and didn’t give up when they were left for dead, even if the outcomes weren’t always positive. What was even more memorable was how the crowds at The Barn reacted to those teams. They were rowdy, loud, and made it as plain as day that while there may have only been five players left on each team, they weren’t alone. I know that The Barn will never rock like it used to. The fire marshal, construction crews, and the reality of college athletic finances took care of that. But I hope it comes close the rest of the season. When things fell apart at Indiana following their scandal a few years ago, fans still flocked to Assembly Hall, were incredibly loud, and stayed positive supporting their players, regardless of the outcome. I wasn’t around during those “Iron Five” years, but I know we can be louder than Indiana. I know can show the team we are still behind them, come hell, high water, torn ligaments, broken feet, or mid-season transfers.  I don’t want to get preachy, and I don’t want this to be a call to arms, but we have been better fans in the past, and the team needs us to be better fans now!

2 thoughts on “Game 20 Preview: With Nolen down, the rest of the season is up to the Elastic Eight

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