No, nothing makes sense in college basketball this season. After another crazy week in the Big Ten, the Golden Gophers start an important stretch of three potentially winnable games. There is a catch of course, and that is their first two opponents, Illinois and Wisconsin, beat the two best teams in the country this week. The Iowa game is on the road, and the Hawkeyes are more than due to beat a decent team. To keep Selection Sunday boring, the Gophers need to find a way to win two of the next three. Otherwise, we’ll all have to start worrying about bubble again.
Since last time:
It is funny, in a sad kind of way, to look back on the first meeting between the Illini and the Gophers, when both teams were ranked and poised to challenge for the Big Ten Title. That didn’t last long. Illinois is only 3-7 in Big Ten play, including their rather miraculous win against the Hoosiers. On a side note, why can’t Zellers play defense in the last five seconds of a game? While the Illini have as many big wins as any team in the country, they can’t seem to beat anyone but bad teams. The Gophers have also let a great season slowly slip away, though are only a few well-timed wins away from securing an NCAA tournament berth. They are also a few poorly timed losses away from digging a hole too deep to climb out of.
Gopher statistic to watch:
We all (and by all, I mean the entire Big Ten) know that the Golden Gophers can not play half-court basketball. The ball movement suffers on the offensive end, making the team very easy to defend. On defense, they wear down easily, tend to double-team the wrong players at the wrong time, and lose track of three-point shooters. For whatever reasons, the Gophers have insisted on slowing the game to a snail’s pace. Each of the last five games has featured 60 or fewer possessions, and in Big Ten play the Gophers are only averaging 60.5 possessions per game. Only Northwestern and Wisconsin play slower. Illinois likes to speed up the game, and the Gophers should let them do just that, and try to get the game as close to 70 possessions as they can.
Illinois statistic to watch:
The obvious thing to watch for the Illini is their three-point shooting. They take, and miss, more three-pointers than any Big Ten team. If they make their threes, they can beat anyone, as Indiana, Ohio State, Gonzaga, and Butler can attest. They aren’t a good shooting team though, so to win they need to corral all those missed shots and do something with them. In the first meeting between the Illini and the Gophers, all those long misses served as outlet passes on Gopher fast breaks. The Illini rank 10th in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding, and the Gophers continue to be one of, if not the best offensive rebounding teams ever (really, it is true). They’ll have a great chance for another good win if they can neutralize Minnesota’s offensive rebounding advantage.
The most important Gopher:
Did you know that the Gophers have an imposing interior player with great post moves, soft touch around the basket, and underrated jump shot, and an uncanny ability to get to the free-throw line? Because his teammates did. Trevor Mbakwe should be the focal point of the Gopher offense, because really who is going to guard him. Minnesota’s guards need to find a way to get Mbakwe the ball, or Mbakwe needs to find a way to get the ball on his own. He attempts only 17.6% of his team’s shots when on the floor, roughly the same percentage as Maverick Ahanmisi. Oto Oseneiks, Mo Walker, and Julian Welch all shoot more often. When those three shoot more often than the best player on the team, there are serious problems.
The most important Illini:
Tyler Griffey was the Illinois half of the key match-up in the game at Illinois, and he had two rebounds. He didn’t score a point. Against Indiana he had 14 points, including the game winner, and eight rebounds. It was his first double-digit scoring game since the week before Christmas. If his performance against Indiana was more than an aberration the Illini might claw their way into the NCAA tournament. If he disappears again, the season will keep sliding away.
Brandon Paul has scored in double-figures in all but one game this season, but he wasn’t always this consistent. Last season, he would follow great games with some real clunkers. In other words, he played a lot like Austin Hollins this season. The elder Hollins is in the deepest slump of his career, coinciding with his team’s struggles. His shooting struggled in the first Illinois game, but he distributed the ball well and played excellent defense. If his shooting struggles, he’ll still help his team in a big way if can make Paul, the leading Illini scorer, struggle too.
What to expect:
Match-ups and style matter. The Illini like to play fast and loose, which keeps the Gophers out of half-court game. They Illini have no post game, keeping the Gophers from doubling the post and leaving open shooters. Illinois also has the second worst defense in the Big Ten, which is always helpful to a struggling offense. This game should go a lot like the last one, with the Gophers winning. But if the Illini can beat the teams they have, they can certainly beat the Gophers.