On their slow and deliberate march towards the top ten, the Golden Gophers have three obstacles in their way. The first two are North Dakota State and Lafayette. The third is finals week. Coming off their second true road win of the season, the team is in the enviable position of only needing to take care of business on the court and in the classroom. The hard part of the non-conference season is over. The Big Ten season doesn’t start for three weeks. Now they need to survive two more games, rest, focus, and gain a whole lot of legitimacy by beating Michigan State on New Year’s Eve.
Despite obvious differences in talent, and the fact that we aren’t discussing football here, the games against North Dakota have recently been all about survival. Last year the Gophers only managed to beat the Bison by four points. Two years ago the Gophers beat the Bison by 19, but lost Al Nolen to an injured foot, an injury the team ultimately did not survive. The discrepancy in talent should be more than enough for the Gophers to thrive. However, North Dakota state is not awful, and the Gophers won’t be able to waltz in expecting to win be merely making an appearance. With a 6-2 record against Division I teams (and two wins over non-Division I team), the Bison are the 4th best team the Gophers will face during the non-conference season. NDSU has losses to Indiana and Wisconson-Green Bay and wins over a host of generally mediocre low to mid-majors.
The Bison are good at one thing, and one thing only, besides grazing the open prairies. They are an elite three-point shooting team, making 41.3% of their outside shots. Four players make more than 37% of their three-point shots. Mike Felt, who makes 46% of his outside shots, has already made 30 three-pointers this season. Of his 83 shot attempts on the year, 65 have been behind the three-point line. The team’s leading scorer, Taylor Braun, has made a relatively modest 42% of his three-point attempts. He is more than just a shooter though, and also leads the team in steals, assists, and rebounds. Luckily, he is 6’7” and is an ideal defensive target for Rodney Williams. Marshall Bjorklund, gamely filling the role of disgruntled Minnesotan not recruited by the Gophers, offers a sturdy post-presense at 6’8”. He is one of only two Bison who has not attempted a three-pointer this season. TrayVonn Wright is a super-skinny forward and an excellent offensive rebounder that oddly enough won’t commit turnovers. Lawrence Alexander is primarly a turnover-prone ball handler. All Bison starters score at least nine points per game. Outside shooting is really all the Bison do well. They struggle from the inside, making only 45% of their two-point shots. Despite obvious shooting skills, they rank only 75th in the country in free-throw shooting percentage, and are horrible at getting to the free-throw line in the first place. They have a ton of shots blocked, and aren’t great at offensive rebounding.
The Bison’s defense, while still not great, doesn’t seem consistent skill-wise with their offense. Anything involving height or athleticism is an uphill battle on the offensive end of the court, and almost second nature on defense. The Bison defend two-point shots well, block a lot of shots, and can rebound competently on the defensive end. The latter is not something the Gophers can claim. NDSU does not force many turnovers, and they will desperately need to do that to counter the Gophers’ offensive rebounding, which is still the best in the country.
I keep waiting for the Gophers to have a let down game, and if they are going to have such a game, they are running out of opportunities. I keep wondering if such a let down will come Maybe four seniors and three juniors are enough to keep them focused. Maybe they are just too good to have a truly bad game. Maybe this team really is different.