The Gophers face their second BCS opponent this week when they play the USC Trojans Saturday afternoon at Williams Arena. When the game was first announced, it was immediately circled on the calendar as an opportunity to pick up a quality win over a team that people actually know. Instead, it will likely be a grudge match between two teams facing major injury problems.
The Gophers stretch their bad luck out over decades. USC seems interested in cramming all their bad luck into one season. During the last three months, the Trojans have faced the same perils that ruined Minnesota’s last two season. Before the season began, they lost point guard Jio Fontan to a torn ACL. After losing Al Nolen last season and Trevor Mbakwe to a torn ACL, the Gophers are all too familiar with ligaments and floor leaders. This week, it was announced that Dewayne Dedmon, USC’s only post low-post threat, is out and could be out for several weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. Yes, you read that right. The injury that took out the Gophers best player took out USC’s point guard, and the injury that took out USC’s best post-player took out Minnesota’s point guard last season. And somehow, that is why USC is good at football and the Gophers are not.
The Trojans are coached by Kevin O’Neill, who is probably most familiar to Gopher fans from his days coaching some truly atrocious Northwestern teams in the late 1990s, taking over for Ricky Byrdsong best known for his nervous breakdown at Williams Arena. Those Northwestern teams were dreadful not just because of their poor records, but because they make watching paint dry seem entertaining. Kevin O’Neill is still trying to dribble the air out of the basketball.
Sometimes people get caught up on low scores and assume that low scoring teams are bad at offense. Many times this is not true. Wisconsin seems to score on every possessions, and that is certainly not bad offense. This isn’t the case with USC. They can’t score and they play slow. Combine the 210th ranked offense with a team that plays at the 5th slowest pace, and you get some awfully low scoring games. They haven’t scored more than 66 points (which they did twice), needed double overtime to score 61 points against Nebraska (it was 49-49 at the end of regulation) and lost 42-36 at home to Cal Poly.
The Trojans should be a nice respite for a Gopher defense that has been struggling. They shoot three-pointers worse than the Gophers, but are above average inside the two point line. Without Dedmon though, this will likely get worse. They also don’t get to the free-throw line and don’t make their free-throws when they do. They commit turnovers on 21.6% of their possessions, which is average, until you realize how slowly they play, and then wonder how they can be slow sloppy.
The USC defense is much better than their offense, but doesn’t it have to be? They defend three-pointers well and two-pointers very well; again though, they will be without a 7 footer and there will be more room in the lane. They rank 41st in the country at forcing turnovers, but oddly don’t block shots or force steals, which tells me teams get frustrated with the slow pace and throw it out-of-bounds when they try to force the action. The Trojans are a bad rebounding team on both ends of the court.
Even with a decimated roster and a dreadful style of play, the Trojans have a couple of fun players to watch. Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller is an undersized slasher at power forward but he is a great rebounder, averaging 6.6 per game and only 6’6” tall. He scored 16 points in his last game against the Gophers. Maurice Jones, a lightning fast and tiny point guard has seen his playing time sky-rocket thanks to injuries. He is averaging 14.8 points, three rebounds, and three assists in 39.9 minutes per game. Jones is the only three-point shooting threat, and he only makes 34% of his attempts.
Despite the weaker competition, the Gophers actually face a bigger test against USC. Against Virginia Tech, the Gophers came out with something to prove and the added motivation to win one for injured forward Trevor Mbakwe. They showed great energy in that game and the effort was obvious. It will be difficult to match that level of effort for an encore, especially against a team whose main weapon is boredom. The Gophers will need to defend for the entire shot clock and can’t get lazy.
So far without Mbakwe, Tubby Smith has been content to maximize every possession and avoid turnovers at all costs, often at the expense of pushing the tempo. That could be a mistake against the Trojans who want to play slow. Expect the Gophers to press more often, especially against a turnover prone team.
Getting over the post-Mbakwe hump was important, but the Gophers need to prove to themselves they can have sustainable success. A loss against a mediocre and also injury riddled team will allow doubts to start seeping in and sap confidence from a young team. There is no such thing as a must win game in early December. However, Saturday’s game against the Trojans will go along way in determining how the team approaches the rest of the season.