Golden Gophers 17-8 (5-7) vs. Ohio State 21-4 (9-3)
8:00 PM CST at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, MN
TV: ESPN Radio: 1500 AM
The only thing worse than being on the bubble is being on the wrong side of the bubble, and despite the Golden Gophers falling two games under .500 in the Big Ten, by almost all accounts, they would still be in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. Whether it is the strength of the Big Ten, those two extra at-large bids, or some mediocre basketball being played all across the country, it is becoming more and more likely that an 8-10 record will be enough to garner a bid. An 8-10 record will be far from a lock, unless one of the remaining wins is a true stunner. Beating the Ohio State Buckeyes would qualify as a stunning win.
Stunning is an upgrade from hopeless, and before Ohio State lost at home to Michigan State over the weekend, the Gophers did not have much hope to get an all important win against the Buckeyes. Now, they might just have a chance.
Of course there is a chance. There is always a chance! Ken Pomeroy puts the chance at 17%, but much crazier things have happened. So how could the Gophers possibly pull off an upset?
Everything starts with Jared Sullinger. He is a formidable foe, certainly a future NBA player, and arguably the second best player in the Big Ten. He can score near the basket, is one of the best rebounders in the country, and just to prove that life isn’t fair, is a 45% three-point shooter. To prove that life is at least sometimes fair, he has turned into a bit of a headcase, whining constantly about the perceived injustice of attempting a free-throw more than half as often as he attempts shots from the field. The Gophers don’t have anyone who can guard him, but they should have enough players to frustrate him. If they can get into his head and if he responds like he did against Michigan State (triple-doubles aren’t supposed to include turnovers) Sullinger should be limited.
Tubby Smith received a lot of criticism about the Gophers inability to defend outside jump shooters. The Gophers were automatically double-teaming inferior interior players, leaving outside shooters wide open looks. Sullinger is not inferior, and the Gophers in all likelihood will automatically double team him, if they even attempt to play man to man defense. There should be a lot of zone defense on display for this first time this season.
Assuming the Gophers do everything they can to stop Sullinger, and assuming Sullinger doesn’t just score against the double-team, the Buckeyes should get a lot of looks from the outside. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Ohio State is not an elite shooting team, or even good. John Diebler is long gone and William Buford is having his worst three-point shooting season since he was a freshman. The Buckeyes are seventh in the conference in three-point shooting. Forcing a lot of outside attempts by a poor shooting team can work. The real danger for the Gopher defense is if Aaron Craft can get by his defender, or if Sullinger can find cutters out of the double team. The Buckeyes make better than 50% of their two-point attempts and score more than 58% of their points off of two-pointers. Minnesota’s defense has had its moments, and if they play well, can hold Ohio State to 65 points or so.
The real challenge for the Gophers is scoring enough points to even have a chance to win. Aaron Craft, the defensive wiz at point guard for the Buckeyes, forces turnovers on over 7% of possessions, which is about five turnovers per game. He leads a defense that forces the 9th most turnovers in the country. OSU is also the third best defensive rebounding team in the country, and somehow does all this while rarely fouling. Opponents get few shot attempts and few free-throws. When opponents do shoot, the Buckeyes have the third best field-goal defense in the conference. That Ohio State has the best defense in the country should not be surprising.
Scoring in the half-court will not be practical for the Gophers, and if they are smart they should try to beat the Buckeyes down the court whenever they can. Deshaun Thomas, OSU’s power-forward, had a terrible time getting back on defense against the Spartans and Rodney Williams should have some easy buckets if his teammates can find him. Tubby Smith has hinted that Andre Hollins may find his way into the starting line-up. He can be turnover prone, which is dangerous especially against a defense like the Buckeyes, but he fast and can score off the dribble in transition. Giving him extended minutes is a chance worth taking.
Beating the Buckeyes should not be expected, and it is not a must win game, especially with other bubble teams around the country faltering worse than the Gophers. But there is chance, and if they somehow do win, they’ll have a much better chance of playing meaningful basketball in March.