Golden Gophers vs. Purdue Boilermakers
12:00 pm (CST) at Mackey Arena (West Lafayette, IN)
Not much changes other than the venue when Big Ten teams meet for the second time in a season, especially when there has only been a couple weeks between games. Strategies are tweaked, sure, but they are still the same players on the same teams with the same strengths and weaknesses. Then there are the Gophers and Purdue.
The Gophers haven’t lost since beating Purdue for their first top ten home win in a decade, beating up on the bottom of the Big Ten. Purdue on the other hand has added two more road losses to West Virginia and Ohio State, in games that they weren’t really expected to win. They also picked up home wins against Penn State and the unIzzoesqe Spartans of Michigan State.
If Al Nolen hadn’t broken his foot, I’d be writing about how Purdue needs to find a way to stop Blake Hoffarber, and that the Gophers need to keep two players within arm’s length of JaJuan Johnson and to stay in front of Lewis Jackson. Now, honestly, I’m not sure if any of that matters. Minnesota’s line-up, with a 7’0” center, a 6’8” power forward, a 7’0” “small” forward, a 6’7” shooting guard, and a 6’4” shooting guard playing point guard is so big and so bizarre that the outcome of the previous game tells us little or nothing about what to expect on Saturday afternoon.
We do know, or at least, do think that the giant sized starting line-up will be in play as long as it is feasible. Tubby Smith has decided to go with experience over what ever would pass as normal on this team. The obvious advantage to this is that no one in the Big Ten except maybe Illinois can roll out players this big if they wanted too. Purdue was on the smaller size without the Colton Iverson for Al Nolen starting line-up switch. Now they’ll have a 7″ deficit at point guard, 3″ at shooting guard, 9″ at small forward, a 1″ height advantage at power forward, and then a 2″ deficit at the center position. Two big questions arise when looking at the mismatches all over the court, how can the Gophers defend the small and quicker players, and how does Purdue deal with at least two half foot height differentials.
The Gophers don’t have much choice. They’ll have to play zone. Against Northwestern and Michigan, two of the most outside shooting oriented teams in the country, the zone worked better than expected. The Gopher defense had too much length to allow open shots or anything in the paint. However, neither Michigan nor Northwestern found a way to force the zone to collapse and get out of position. Instead, they passed from one player to another 25 feet from the basket, and eventually, often after much hesitation and confusion, forced a 25 foot shot with shot clock running out. Purdue has the type of player who is perfect to force defenders out of position. Lewis Jackson has finally found a bit of offense, and used his exceptional quickness and a much improved outside shot to score 15 points in the first match-up against the Gophers and 19 points against Michigan State. No Gopher defender can stay in front of him, even Al Nolen had some issues. The question then becomes if that will matter against the zone. Jackson is robustly listed at 5’9” and will be in the land of the giants once he gets by the first line of defense. It will be crucial for the interior defenders to remember that a 15″ height advantage means they don’t need to leave their feet or wildly lunge out of position. If the Gopher defenders can stay in position, their height will cause real problems for Purdue. If they start moving, pretty slowly I might add, then the Boilermakers and their 38% percent three-point shooting could quickly blow the Gophers out of Mackey Arena. The zone should at the very least force JaJuan Johnson away from the basket, where he is still plenty dangerous, but an open 18 footer is a lower percentage shot than his ridiculous and almost unfair turn-around fade-away jumper.
Lewis Jackson will also be the key to slowing down the Gophers when they have the ball. For some strange reason, neither Michigan or Northwestern pressured Blake Hoffarber bringing the ball up the court. The senior Gopher guard is good at a lot of things, including ball handling, but he is not quick enough to dribble out of a double team or race across the half-court line if he gets bogged down in the back court. Jackson’s job will be to force Hoffarber to work just to get the ball up the court, and at the very least, make someone else handle the basketball. When the ball does make it across half court, and let’s hope it does much more often than not, Matt Painter will have some tough decisions to make. Does he sell his soul and play zone, hoping that Blake Hoffarber doesn’t get lost on a slow rotation or because of poor communication, or does he take his chances, hoping that the Gophers forget about their size advantage, and that Johnson can stay out of foul trouble.
The Gophers should be a heavy underdog in West Lafayette where they have not won in six seasons, and they probably will be. They’ll be in a hostile environment playing against a team looking for revenge not just against the Gophers who have beaten them twice, but also vicariously after being thrashed against the Buckeyes. Once again, how the Gophers play might be more important than the outcome, given the bit of breathing room they have alone in fourth place in the Big Ten. They beat Northwestern with a big line-up, but the Wildcats aren’t very good and they run gimmick schemes on both ends of the court. The Boilermakers are a good team, and play it as straight-up as any team in the country. If the Gophers can compete against them, they can compete against anyone. If it gets ugly, Tubby Smith will have a lot of work to do, both in getting the Gophers to the NCAA tournament, and finding a capable ball handler somewhere in the 50,000 strong University of Minnesota student body.