All good things must come to an end, and hopefully on Saturday, that includes the home careers of Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Julian Welch, and Andre Ingram. We don’t want to see them go. Rodney Williams soaring through air and Trevor Mbakwe’s chest pounding dunks will be sorely missed. But if we do see them play another game in venerable Williams Arena, it means something has gone horribly wrong over the final three games of the Big Ten season. Thanks to the thrilling, potentially season saving win over the best team in the country on Tuesday night, the Gophers need only one more win to make the NCAA tournament. The three remaining games are against three of the worst teams in the Big Ten, starting with Penn State.
Once the season winds down we’ll take a closer at the careers of the departing seniors. They deserve so much more than a short blurb on a random blog in the middle of a game preview. But until then, thank you, sincerely, for your two to seven and a half (or s0) years with the basketball program. You will be missed.
How the Gophers got here:
The pressure isn’t off the Gophers, especially with their ability to beat or be beaten by any team in the country, but they certainly did themselves a big favor by beating Indiana earlier this week. Their 7-8 Big Ten record isn’t what they hoped it would be, but they continue to have only one bad loss on the season, and more than enough good wins for an 8-10 conference record to send them to the tournament.
How the Nittany Lions got here:
It had been a forgettable season in Happy Valley, until an unforgettable upset win over Michigan the other night. It was their first conference win of the season, after near miss after near miss. No team deserves to go winless, or have only one win in the conference season. But if they can have only one win, why not knock off a top five team at home on senior night?
Gophers statistic to watch:
Minnesota’s offensive rebounding ability is approaching absurdity. They secured 53.5% of their own missed shots against Indiana. On the season, they are still collecting 45.2% of offensive rebounding opportunities, more than three percentage points better than Colorado State. Barring a few zero offensive rebound games, the Gophers will go down in history as the best offensive rebounding team in history.
Despite Penn State’s lack of success in every other facet of the game of basketball, they are an excellent defensive rebounding team, ranking 17th in the country on the season. Their defensive rebounding has been closer to average during the conference season. If the Gophers can manage to dominate the glass again, they should have no problem with Penn State. If they can’t, then they’ll need to execute in the half-court, take care of the ball, or even make a shot outside of three feet.
Nittany Lions statistic to watch:
Winning a basketball game without putting the ball in the basket is not an easy task. During Penn State’s 14 game conference losing streak, they couldn’t make a basket. They rank 323rd in the country in three-point shooting and 304th in two-point shooting. In their January loss at Purdue, they made only 26% of their two-point shots and 25% of their three-point shots on their way to 42 points. When they beat Michigan they made 50% of their three-point shots and 46% of their two-point shots. It was their fourth respectable shooting game in a row. While the Michigan game was their only win, they lost by single digits to Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan State. If they can put the ball in the basket, they can be competitive.
The most important Gopher:
It would be easy to declare Trevor Mbakwe the most important Gopher after his monstrous performance against Indiana. However, the absence of a player can also demonstrate their importance. In Minnesota’s three most recent losses, Rodney Williams did not play or was severely limited by a nagging shoulder injury. When he played his normal minutes against Indiana and Wisconsin, the Gophers won. As his career winds down, it has become obvious that he will never match the hype that his career started with. However, without his 11 points and five rebounds per game, the Gophers struggle.
The most important Nittany Lion:
When Tim Frazier ruptured his Achilles tendon, D.J. Newbill was given the reigns of the team. At the beginning of the season he was a shooting guard who could not shoot. Now, he is a shooting guard who can not shoot who is forced to play point guard. Despite his obvious shortcomings, he is the best player on his team, leading them in scoring and assists. He can be a dangerous slasher, but as long as defenders stay in front of him he is generally inefficient. He has shot better than 50% from the field only three times during the conference season.
If Austin Hollins is making shots, the Gophers can be an exceptionally good team. Unfortunately, the always streaky shooting guard has been mired in a cold streak during the most crucial portion of the season. He is has missed nine straight three-pointers and hasn’t scored in double figures in either of his last two games. He has kept his spot in the starting line-up because of his ability to distribute the basketball and play solid defense. If he isn’t able to make shots, he will at least need to slow down Jermaine Marshall, Penn State’s second leading scorer at 15.4 points per game. Marshall is far from efficient, but has been rolling lately, making 10 of his last 18 three-pointers and scoring 55 points over his last two games. If he can replicate that performance and keep Austin Hollins cold, Penn State could pull off another shocker.
What to expect:
Both teams will be coming off upset wins, so any let down by either team will be balanced out. Penn State’s 1-14 conference record does not reflect the quality of the team, but they aren’t as good as the Gophers. They’ll have no answer for Trevor Mbakwe, and the Williams Arena crowd should be enough to carry the Gophers to victory. It won’t be a blow-out though, especially if the Gophers can’t get second chance points.