Non-conference games against low-major teams always make me the most nervous. Nothing good can come from them. If the Gophers win, they do nothing but meet expectations, while risking injuries, laziness, and ultimately a loss that could ruin a season. Close games against unimpressive competition doesn’t produce the giddy excitement that makes college basketball the best sport on earth. They create existential angst known only to those who have been in a police line-up or lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a hopeless feeling worsened by outcome you can not control.
I love close Big Ten games. I live for them. There isn’t much else to get excited about during the cold dreary months. The best part is that the negative consequence of losing doesn’t hang over the action on the court, or at least not as much. There is the expectation, at least for middle tier Big Ten teams, that every game is winnable or loseable. If the Gophers win, fantastic. If they lose, well, these things happen. And sometimes Vincent Grier scores 29 points in a half, or Lawrence Westbrook goes bonkers during a miracle comeback, or Blake Hoffarber does only what he can do, and games like that more than make up for any disappointing losses during the Big Ten season. The slog is almost over, thankfully, and the fun starts in six days.
But first, there is the matter of The Bison. Speaking of how I so dislike the non-conference season, how about adding in games against semi-local teams who look forward to playing the Gophers all season because feel like they have something to prove, and then give the Gophers nine days off to focus on everything other than basketball. Then, just to make it especially bad, have the Gophers start the Big Ten season in six days, two days after Christmas that is only four days away. There is oh so much that could go wrong, and this is the perfect “trap game” scenario. I hope that it is so obvious that things could go wrong that the team is especially focused.
If, and it is a massive if, the Gophers are focused and ready to play, they should win relatively easily. North Dakota State is the fourth best team to play at The Barn this season, slightly better than Fairfield and slightly worse than USC. The Bison, 7-2 against Division I teams, don’t have any very good wins (unless San Francisco counts). One loss was against a bad Arizona State team and the other against even worse Western Illinois.
Like most teams of their level, they are short along the front line with no one taller than 6’9” who plays meaningful minutes and no starters over 6’8”. Taylor Braun is a big guard scoring 14 points per game with six rebounds. He is not afraid to shoot three-pointers when given the opportunity, but the vast majority of his shots come from inside the three-point line. Marshall Bjorklund is one of the aforementioned 6’8” starters who hasn’t attempted a three-point shot in his life. Given his 69% shooting, he must take smart shots. He can be turnover prone. Lawrence Alexander runs the shot for the Bison, and has a two to one assist to turnover ratio. He also scores plenty with more than 11 points per game, but isn’t as good an outside shooter as he would like to think. Mike Felt is a very dangerous shooting guard who scores almost exclusively from the outside, making three three-pointers per game. TrayVonn Wright is a decent rebounder who will score some around the basket. Eric Carlson is easing his way back from an injury and should play, though he’ll have some acclimating to do. After that, the Bison don’t have much. The Bison are not a deep team, and 223rd in the country in bench minutes.
The Bison won’t beat themselves, and they commit far fewer turnovers than the Gophers. They are a decent shooting team, and luckily, shoot twos better than threes. They are a horrible offensive rebounding team, ranked 310th in the country. The Gophers, despite the loss of Trevor Mbakwe, now rank 9th in offensive rebounding, so second chance points will play a big role in the final outcome. NDSU gets to the line fairly often and is an average free-throw shooting team. On defense the Bison defend three-point shots at an elite level and defend two pointers rather well too. They struggle keeping teams off the free-throw line and don’t force many turnovers.
Even though I despise close games that should be meaningless, a close game against the Bison would be helpful in the long run. Using all sorts of statistical wizardry, Ken Pomeroy projects scores for upcoming games based on the past performance of the teams involved. He has projected the Gophers to go 8-10 in the Big Ten, with seven of the games decided by one possession. There will be plenty of close games in the Big Ten season. Even with last year’s late season disintegration, most games were within one possession with a couple of minutes to play. It will be much better to learn to execute in high pressure situations at home than with the Izzone breathing down their necks.