For the last several seasons, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have had only one basketball rival, and it was not the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa was very bad at basketball, struggling to stay out of the Big Ten cellar, and if we are going to be honest without ourselves, the Gophers were not usually that much better. Even those mediocre Gopher teams found a way to beat the Hawkeyes who, because of lack of talent and lack of coaching, couldn’t put up much of a fight. In the early days of the Monson era, the Gophers and Hawkeyes took turns between being bad and medicore, which led to some not very compelling basketball games, and the rivalry nearly died.
Thank goodness, at least for the sake of all things rivalry, that the Hawkeyes swept the Gophers last season, because it at least means there will be competitive basketball again. The Gopher-Hawkeye rivalry, at its finest in the 1980s and 1990s, had the ingredients to be great. There were the staples of hatred, mistrust, compelling coaches, compelling players, controversy, and style-contrasts. Most importantly though was some great basketball, and close games regardless of the quality of the teams. I wrote about the 1993-1994 season the other day, and that season exemplified the rivalry. Despite the Gophers finishing fourth in the Big Ten and Iowa finishing last, the two teams each won the home game, and both in epic fashion. The next season each team won the road game, the Gophers by one and the Hawkeyes by four. The teams split the next year again, and were within two points of splitting in 1996-97, but the Gophers managed to barely escape Iowa City with a road win. Despite a down season for the Gophers in 1997-1998 and the Hawkeyes finishing in the upper half of the Big Ten, it was another road win split. The next year it was a home win split, and both games were decided by single-digits. The two teams even split in Dan Monson’s first season, as the Gophers won by three, for the second of their four Big Ten wins. Iowa would go on to win their next four games over the Gophers. The two teams played each other only once in 2002 and 2003, with the Gophers winning both of those games. Iowa won the next three games, but the damage was done, as the Monson years slowly slipped away, only to be replaced by the Lickliter years, and some ugly basketball. Now Tubby Smith has what should be his best Gopher teams, and Fran Mccaffery has his best Iowa team.
The rivalry is off its deathbed.
How the Hawkeyes got here:
Despite a 3-5 Big Ten record, the Hawkeyes should be feeling pretty good about their performance so far. They have played the top five teams in the Big Ten so far, and the sixth best team in the conference is the Gophers. They’ve managed to keep their games close at home, but have struggled on the road. Their best win so far was against Wisconsin. Their lone bad loss was to Purdue in overtime. During the non-conference season, Iowa went 11-2 with two mostly respectable losses to Virginia Tech and Wichita State, and potentially good wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
How the Gophers got here:
The loss to Northwestern could ultimately haunt the Gophers for a very long time, because it takes away their margin for error. If they had won that game, this game wouldn’t matter too much. Instead, it is something of a must win. A loss on Sunday would drop the Gophers below .500 in the Big Ten, with little chance of evening their conference record in East Lansing. Losing winnable home games is a good way to end up on the bubble, or worse.
Gopher statistic to watch:
Of course it is turnovers. It always is. The difference this time is that the Gophers are coming off two of their best games in terms of taking care of the basketball. Nebraska and Wisconsin both like to slow the pace of play, and don’t try to force turnovers. Iowa, on the other hand, loves to push the pace. Forcing turnovers is not a defensive priority for the Hawkeyes, but they do happen as teams play faster than they should. Minnesota typically plays better when the pace is faster, but their decision making tends to suffer too. If the Gophers can limit their turnovers, they’ll likely beat the Hawkeyes, and if their turnover problems are finally solved, they’ll likely beat a lot of other teams too.
Hawkeyes statistic to watch:
Iowa misses a lot of shots. Combine their nearly 70 possessions per game and their 200th ranked shooting, and you get a lot of rebounding opportunities. The Hawkeyes are 1-5 on the season when they are out-rebounding on the offensive end. Their only win came against Wisconsin, a team that intentionally avoids offensive rebounds. Because of their poor shooting, they will need to come up with some offensive rebounds to counter what will likely be another big offensive rebounding day for the Gophers. Iowa shouldn’t out shoot the Gophers, and any extra field goal attempts will be important.
The most important Gopher:
Trevor Mbakwe missed both games against the Hawkeyes last season. Despite his absence, the Gophers were able to dominate the paint. Ralph Sampson III, of all people, managed to score in double-figures in both games. Iowa still does not have much of a post-presence. Melsahn Basabe is much more of a small-forward than he is a post player. Adam Woodbury was a highly-recruited freshman, but he is little more than a big body at this point. The Gophers will have a big advantage in the post on both ends of the court if Mbakwe plays well.
The most important Hawkeye:
Roy Devyn Marble is a bit of a match-up nightmare. At 6’6″, he is the size of a small-forward but has the skills of point guard, and despite being tall, is an excellent ball-handler who regularly records assists without turnovers. He also leads the team in scoring. The problem, all too often, is shot selection. He is making only 43% of his two-point shots and 34% of his three-point attempts.
The match-up to watch:
Aaron White and Rodney Williams, in their heart of hears, want to be perimeter players. In reality, they are much more successful closer to the basket. Williams is better on defense, and White is better on offense. The onus will be on Williams on Sunday. The Hawkeyes can win games without big contrubutions from White. The Gophers go as Williams goes, and if he disappears, wins will too.
What to expect:
The Hawkeyes love to run, and the Gophers would rather run than try to run a half-court offense. Expect a high-scoring, fast-paced, and occasionally sloppy game. The Gophers should control the boards, and eventually the game.