The Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the Duke Blue Devils on Thanksgiving in what is probably the biggest non-conference regular season basketball game in program history (are there even any other contenders?). Since it is such a big game, it seems appropriate to have an extra preview.
I’ll spare you the statistical minutia because a lot of it won’t matter. The Gophers and Blue Devils are nearly perfectly matched. The Gophers have the fifth best defense in the country. Duke has the fourth best offense. The Gophers have the 27th best offense. Duke has the 28th best defense. If that doesn’t produce an excessively tension filled game, I don’t know what will. Oh wait, I do: turnovers and offensive rebounding. If the Gophers manage to have the same number of field goal attempts as Duke, they’ll win. If the shot attempts get lopsided like they did against Richmond, when the Spiders had an extra 20 chances, it will no longer matter that the teams are evenly matched.
While the teams as a whole are evenly matched, the real drama will take place in the individual match-ups. Here’s a look at how things could work out:
Center – Elliott Eliason vs. Mason Plumlee
Down low there will be a battle consisting of 14 feet of skinny white dudes, but one is more awkward than the other. Plumlee might be Duke’s best player, coming into the game averaging 21.7 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game, and 2.7 blocks per game. Needless to say, Eliason is not. This will be the most lopsided match-up in skill level on Thursday afternoon, but there is a sliver or two of hope that it won’t be so completely one-sided to negate any all other match-ups. The first is that Plumlee tends to do most of his scoring around the basket. Eliason gets into trouble quickly if he needs to follow his man around the perimeter. The other sliver is that Plumlee isn’t exactly a wide body. As long as the Gophers can keep someone as big or bigger, like Eliason, between Plumlee and the basket, he can be slowed if not not stopped.
Power Forward – Rodney Williams vs. Ryan Kelly
Neither Williams or Kelly, who each have a decent shot of playing in the NBA next season, will be a power forward if their careers take them that far. Williams, as you know, is much more of a wing player who is more comfortable closer to the basket. Kelly, at 6’11″ and 230 pounds, should be a dominant inside player, but shoots about four three-point attempts per game. Kelly who is taller is a better ball handler. Williams, who is shorter, is a better rebounder. No, none of this makes sense. What ultimately will matter is versatility. Williams has the leaping ability and instincts to negate any size advantage that Kelly has on offense, and I can’t see Kelly being quick enough to stop Williams on the defensive end.
Small Forward: Joe Coleman vs. Rasheed Sulaimon
Coleman has the strength advantage and rarely attempts jump shots. Sulaimon is a highly touted freshman who has been mysteriously abysmal inside the three-point line, making only 15.4% of two pointers but 44.4% of his three-pointers. Coleman is a better rebounder but throws the ball away at a dangerous clip. Sulaimon takes care of the ball exceedingly well. Duke will have the slight edge in this match-up solely because of Coleman’s propensity to give the ball away. If his decision-making is sound, he should be able to fight to a draw.
Shooting guard – Austin Hollins vs. Seth Curry
If Plumlee isn’t Duke’s best player, then it has to be Curry, who is finally is finally getting some time to shine. He’s been slowed by a leg injury in practice, but hasn’t shown ill-effects during games. He’s a Curry, so he is deadly from the outside, and a steadying presence in an otherwise young back court. The crazy thing is that Austin Hollins might just be better. He’s a better defender, has finally learned how to rebound, and has a 2.16 to one assist to turnover ratio. This season, so far at least, he’s shooting exceptionally well. Yes, the small sample size oath applies. If Hollins plays Curry to a draw, it will be a huge win for the Gophers.
Point guard – Andre Hollins vs. Quinn Cook
This is the only match-up that should clearly be an advantage for the Gophers. Cook is your fairly standard pure-point guard, not shooting too often, playing good enough defense, and trying to get teammates involved. His 4.7 assists per game are excellent, but his three turnovers per game undo a lot of the good he does. Andre Hollins, as we’ve occasionally seen, can be transcendent. He had seven points and two steals in a minute and a half against Richmond, which is hopefully a sign of things to come. He’s gotten better every game this season, and still has some room to improve. For the Gophers to win, Hollins needs to outplay Cook more than Plumlee outplays Elliason.
The Bench – Gophers’ Bigs vs. Duke’s guards
Rounding out the nice match-up symmetry is that both team’s weakness in the starting line-up are offset by their strength’s off the bench. Eliasion could be in some trouble against Plumlee, but a mostly healthy duo of Mo Walker and Trevor Mbakwe should be enough to neutralize that advantage if necessary. Quinn Cook can’t play with Andre Hollins at his best, but Tyler Thorton could slow him down, and is certainly better than any reserve guards the Gophers will have on hand.
Someone wins the game in the final minute, and the other team feels no shame in losing an extremely tight contest.