The Minnesota Golden Gophers quest to beat other teams who happen to wear maroon and gold continues Saturday night against the USC Trojans in a game no one will see. Back in Minnesota, where people do care about college basketball, the game is not televised. In southern California, no one cares about college basketball. Games like this lead to philosophical questions involving trees, forests, and the absence of anyone to hear any sounds they might make.
Ideally, every game would be televised. However, if there was going to be a semi-meaningful game not on TV, I’m happy it is this one. The Trojans play a dreadfully bad brand of basketball and are hard to watch. The Gophers are a much better team before things like road trips and time zones are entered into the equation. Minnesota should win, comfortably in fact. If they don’t, I’d rather not see it, and keep alive any fantasies of this being the best Gophers team since the one that did not happen.
The Trojans out-gophered the Gophers last season with injuries and bad luck, and limped to a 6-26 record and 1-17 in the Pac 12. That conference record was horrible, but it is even worse considering the Pac 12 also “featured” Utah, who went 3-15, and yes, the Trojans only win was against the almost as horrible Utes. Minnesota beat the Trojans in classic super-low scoring blowout, 55-40. That game was largely inconsequential, until Andre Hollins tried to dunk on a seven footer in the closing minutes, landed awkwardly on his ankle, and wasn’t quite the same until at least a month later.
An infusion, of talent, or blood, or anything, was needed after last season’s ineptitude, and the Trojans have several new faces on this season’s team. Three of the four Trojans leading scorers hail from elsewhere, though sliding new pieces into a broken system hasn’t exactly fixed things. J.T. Terrell transferred from Wake Forest where he was a promising freshman who shot too much and didn’t make enough shots. This season, he is a less promising sophomore that shoots too often and does not make enough shots. He is scoring about 12 points per game and on 12 field goal attempts. To give just a bit of perspective, the Gophers have four players who score in double figures, and none average more than 10 shots per night. Eric Wise, hailing from the Anteaters of UC-Irvine, is a big-bodied 6’6” who is an efficient scorer with good range. He is the only Trojan who is even marginally efficient. Byron Wesley, who actually did play for the Trojans last season, is a 6’5” guard who is hard to defend and draws a fair number of fouls, but can’t make free-throws. Jio Fontan, a senior point guard from Hofstra who blew out his knee before last season, was supposed to be the savior of the Trojans. He makes Terrell look efficient, shooting 27% from the field. As dreadful as Oto Osenieks has been at times, he is shooting 33% from the field, and has the sense to not shoot it 10 times per game. Fontan does manage a respectable 5.3 assists per game. His turnovers (2.9 per game) and lack of defense or rebounding diminish his value further. If you had a TV that showed the game, you’d also see the Trojans occasionally trot out a pair of seven footers. The first, Dewayne Dedmon, whom Andre Hollins tried to dunk over, seems talented enough if he could stay out of foul trouble (he can’t). The other is Omar Oraby, a transfer from Rice, who should be undefendable and a rebounding force at 7’2” and 270 pounds (he isn’t).
With all these pieces not quite fitting into place, it shouldn’t be surprising that this has not been the best season for the Trojans. They are only 3-5, which is good I guess, compared to last season. There wins were over a bad Long Beach State team, a worse Coppin State team, and against Texas. That Texas win has been touted as good by some. Texas lost to Chaminade, scored only 53 points in 45 minutes against USC, and scored 41 against Georgetown. Texas is not good, and neither was the Trojans win over the Longhorns.
With the traditional cream puff preseason college basketball schedule, teams don’t arrive at a 3-5 record by being good at basketball. The Trojans play slow, and coupled with an offense that averages only .97 points per possession, they don’t score many points. A bi-product of their slowness is that they don’t commit many turnovers. However, a lot of dribbling and a lot of perimeter passing doesn’t lead to open shots. They rank 163rd nationally in three-point shooting and an almost impossible to believe 265th in the country in two-point shooting (44.2%). Keep in mind they have two seven-footers and the 6th tallest team in the country, yet they can not score inside. You figure that out. The Trojans also rarely get to the free-throw line, again, despite being gigantic. They also can’t rebound on the offensive end, and they are huge!
Logic, thankfully, does prevail on the defensive end. They are only the 115th best defense in the country, though their slow pace does tend to keep scores low. They force an above average number of turnovers and are a good defensive rebounding team, much better than the Gophers actually. They are absolutely dreadful at defending three-points, ranking 336th in the country. This makes a lot of sense since seven-footers are not well equipped to chase around 6’5” shooters. They defend two-point shots decently well and block a fair number of shots. While their interior defending and shot blocking is acceptable in general, it really isn’t considering their size. The interior should be impenetrable. Instead, it still looks like Swiss cheese compared to Minnesota’s interior defense.
On a neutral court this would be a Gopher blow-out win. If it was a road game in a neutral time-zone, the Gophers would win comfortably. Unfortunately, California is in the Pacific time zone, and this could cause some issues. More research than you could ever imagine or hope to justify has studied team performance as it pertains to time zones, and the research does not favor the Gophers. Peak performance for basketball players is mid-afternoon, and it gets worse as the day/evening progresses. It will be much closer to the afternoon for the Trojans. The Gophers, and the fans that won’t actually see the game, could be a bit sleepy. The key to a win, as it generally is for road teams, is to end the game early. A quick start, particularly for Andre Hollins, should put the game away. USC hasn’t made any significant comebacks in any of their games this season, and a comfortable Minnesota lead should be enough for the few radio listeners left in this day and age to actually get some sleep.