It may be a bit early for such grand pronouncements, but the Golden Gophers Big Ten season has reached a crossroads. We know they can not beat teams ranked #5 on home, road, or neutral floors. We also don’t know where the Gophers sit in the Big Ten pecking order. Losing to highly ranked teams is fine if there is consistent effort and the game is close throughout. Unfortunately, the losses to Indiana and Michigan featured minutes long lapses along with insurmountable deficits that could not be overcome. Now after two straight losses, Minnesota hits the road for two games in historically unfriendly venues.
Since last time:
The Gophers followed their home win over Northwestern with their now not so good win in Illinois and their two losses to the #5 teams. Northwestern followed their loss with a double-digit win at Penn State, was blown out by Iowa, blew out Illinois, and would have been blown out by Indiana if that game featured more than 54 possessions (the national average is about 67 possessions).
Northwestern is undoubtedly playing better than they were when they faced the Gophers. They are healthier than they have been, have rediscovered the 1-3-1 zone, and might be able to build on their slowball strategy, if they can make shots.
Gopher statistic to watch:
Enough about turnovers! If you want to read a depressingly thorough analysis of the turnover plague, you can do that here. Instead we’ll focus on tempo. In the first half in Minneapolis, the Wildcats successfully mucked it up, much to the chagrin of everyone but James Naismith’s ghost. Northwestern trailed 17-14 at the half. Once the Gophers pushed the tempo and started running in the open floor, the differences in skill and athleticism between the two teams became apparent. The Wildcats have no reason not to slow the game down again, and the Gophers have every incentive to speed it up, except for the turnovers that can accompany fast paced games.
Wildcat statistic to watch:
Teams without anything else to fall back on, like defense or rebounding, are dependent on their shooting. Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in both defense and rebounding, so they need to put the ball in the basket to be competitive. Lately, they’ve been shooting better, especially from the outside. In their two Big Ten wins they shot 43% and 51%. In their losses, they haven’t cracked 36% from behind the three-point line. To beat the Gophers, they’ll need to crack 40% from three.
The most important Gopher:
Austin Hollins is quickly establishing himself as the most important Gopher, regardless of the opponent. In Big Ten play, the Junior guard is averaging 14 points per game and shooting over 60% from behind the three-point line. In the first Northwestern game, he made five three-pointers in a row and has barely slowed down since. If Northwestern goes zone, and Hollins gets going, the zone won’t last long. Did I mention turnovers? Because Austin Hollins does not commit them.
The most important Wildcat:
It was Reggie Hearn last time, and it is Reggie Hearn this time too. He was coming off an ankle injury in Minneapolis and didn’t seem himself, scoring only 11 points. He scored at least 20 in each of the last two games, and has rediscovered his ability to get to the free-throw line. Any points that Northwestern can score without the Gophers defending them will be important.
Match-up to watch:
Despite a four or five inch height advantage, Alex Olah was no match for Trevor Mbakwe, as the Northwestern center was only 1-7 from the floor with four rebounds. Mbakwe dominated the game despite only scoring four points himself. Eleven rebounds and four blocks will do that. Northwestern has been trying to get Olah more involved in the offense, and had five assists against Indiana. Scoring might not be Olah’s thing, but he at least has to help his teammates score.
What to expect:
The Gophers seems to be really good at losing winnable games at Northwestern. This season, they’ve consistently been able to beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and that trend should continue, unless we are in the midst of the annual Big Ten free fall. If that is the case, panic.