Coming off what could be considered their most impressive performance of the season, the Gophers take their talents from South Beach to Murfreesboro to take on the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders with a trip to New York City on the line.
If you missed Minnesota’s win at Miami, you missed a dominating performance that featured another tied career high from Rodney Williams, Andre Ingram surpassing serviceable to become rather dominant for one night only, the re-emergence of Joe Coleman, a perfect three-point shooting night from Julian Welch, and a health dose of #hollinsanity. Sure, Miami didn’t seem to care that they were being run out of their own building, but we have also seen plenty of games over the years in which the Gophers seemed to care even less.
If the N.I.T. is about extra games and extra practice and not about hoisting meaningless trophies in a half-filled cavernous “most famous arena in the world” then Wednesday night’s game is more important than any games that could potentially take place in New York City. The N.I.T. final four isn’t until March 27th. A win in Murfreesboro would give a coalescing team another week to get better. A win against Middle Tennessee State could also potentially give the Gophers a chance to play Oregon and Devoe Joseph, which would certainly add a whole new level of meaning to a meaningless game.
The Blue Raiders had all the makings of a March Madness sleeper. They had the profile of a Sweet Sixteen sleeper with nine upperclassmen on the roster, enough size to match up with power conference teams, decent non-conference wins (UCLA, Mississippi), and a dominant conference season. The only problem was that they never made the tournament, losing to Arkansas State in their first Sun Belt Conference tournament game. It was a loss that doomed them to the N.I.T. and their game against the Gophers. To reach this game, they won a close game at home against Marshall and beat Tennessee in Knoxville, ending the game on a 14-0 run.
The Gophers will have their work cut out for them to win at MTSU, who has lost only one home game this year, and that was to a trendy NCAA tournament upset pick, Belmont (though my bracket wishes it didn’t try to be trendy). This won’t be a high school gym like at La Salle or an empty airplane hangar like the Miami game. This game will be on the home court of a mid-major team with rowdy fans who would like nothing more to knock of a Big Ten team.
I mentioned that Middle Tennesee has good size, and that they do, with four players 6’8” or taller. None is more important than LaRon Dendy who averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds and isn’t afraid to shoot the occasional three-pointer. Rodney Williams will likely be defending him, and will need to play smart defense without fouling. Dendy drew the 12th most fouls in the country. Markos Knight is the team’s second leading scorer and an excellent rebounder. Despite being only 6’2” he pulled down more than five per game. He is not a good shooter, particularly from the outside. If the Gophers can stay in front of him, they should be alright. JT Sulton is a classic power forward and a very good offensive rebounder. He’ll also draw plenty of fouls. Raymond Cintron is a rather bulky guard and MTSU’s biggest three-point shooting threat with 43% shooting from the outside. Of his 80 made field-goals this season, 64 were three-pointers. Bruce Massey is the defensive stopper with 1.6 steals per game.
The Blue Raiders give the Gophers another opportunity to play yet another different style of team. They will attack the basket and pound the ball inside and in the process get opponents in foul trouble and parade to the free-throw line. Only three teams attempt free-throws more often than MTSU. Unfortunately, they don’t make that many of them, ranking 317th in the country in free-throw percentage. Even when those free-throws don’t fall, they force opponents’ better players off the floor and open up outside shooters. They don’t shoot many three-pointers, only 12 teams shoot fewer, but they make 36% of their outside shots. By mostly taking shots close to the basket, they make 52.4% of their two point shots, good enough to rank 14th in the country.
After all that, you are likely wondering what they are doing in the N.I.T. elite eight and not the…well…actual elite eight. They do have weaknesses, and they are big. They can’t take care of the ball or control the defensive glass. MTSU gives the ball away about as often as the Gophers, on 20.7% of their possessions. The Gophers can live with their inability to hold on to the ball because they get plenty of offensive rebounds and are usually adequate on the defensive glass. MTSU gives up an offensive rebound on 33% of their opponents’ misses. That, combined with their turnover problems, means their opponents often get many more shot attempts than the Blue Raiders.
The Gophers seem to be peaking at exactly the wrong time. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see the Gophers run Illinois or Northwestern out of their own gym when these games mattered? Even though they don’t matter these games continue to plant the seed for next season, which could be special if they can play like this when the games do matter.