In the run-up to Selection Sunday, there is no shortage of what teams will make the NCAA tournament and how they will be seeded. The discussion of which teams will make the tournament isn’t pointless. Obviously bubble teams and their fans care a great amount about their tournament chances, and making the tournament is a prerequisite to winning a national championship. Seeding, on the other hand, doesn’t matter. For all the talk of the number one overall seed and which teams received a good or bad seed, more discussion should surround match-ups and location. Playing a virtual home or road game does more to determine the outcome of a game than wearing a home or road jersey, the only thing seeding actually does determine. Even more important than game location is the actual teams that are playing and how they match-up.
By both accounts, the Golden Gophers are extremely lucky. UCLA is a good match-up for the Gophers, and Austin, Texas should be a neutral as neutral can be. In recent years, the NCAA has attempted to place team’s close to home. With a tournament site in San Jose, and another in Salt Lake City, Utah, there are locations much closer to Los Angeles. Despite being the higher seed, UCLA gets to travel an extra 200 miles and two time zones away. The game will start at 9 pm, which will seem a lot later for the Gophers and will be a time at which UCLA is accustomed to playing, though the Gophers will trade that for avoiding a road game.
There are certain types of teams that would have given the Gophers real trouble, even if at home. The Gophers have struggled all season with teams that can minimize Minnesota’s rebounding advantage, force turnovers, and slow the game down. Fortunately the Bruins don’t do any of these things well.
UCLA was the worst rebounding team in the PAC-12, a conference not known for anything resembling rugged physicality. The Bruins had a better offensive rebounding percentage than their opponents only once in PAC 12 play, including allowing Washington State, the 6th best offensive rebounding team, to secure 62% of possible offensive rebounds. The Gophers are still on pace to be the best offensive rebounding team of all time. Really, they are. They’ve struggled to get defensive rebounds too, but UCLA is bad at that too. As long as the Gophers can get shots up, they should get plenty of second chance points.
Unfortunately, getting shots up is not always one of the Gophers strengths. At large teams from power conference don’t get double-digit seeds without a few fundamental flaws, and turnovers are the Gopher’s fatal flaw. No Big Ten team committed turnovers as frequently as the Gophers, and as we pointed out months ago,
this is independent of the opponent. The Gophers will commit too many turnovers against UCLA. It is what they do. Fortunately, UCLA ranked 177th in the country in forcing turnovers. The Gophers may beat themselves, but at least they’ve avoided a team that causes turnover problems even for teams that do take care of the basketball.
Even though the Bruins don’t force a ton of turnovers, they like to get out and run. They averaged 69.3 possessions per game, the 35th most in the nation. Indiana and Iowa tied for the Big Ten lead in “playing fast” with 67.8 possessions per game, which ranked 88th in the country. The Gophers often played excruciatingly slow, and only eclipsed the Bruin’s average possessions per game twice in Big Ten play, in the first Illinois and Indiana games. The best case scenario is that, despite Tubby Smith, the Gophers end up in a free-flowing game with plenty of opportunities to use their athleticism. At worst, the Gophers grind it out, in a style antithetical to UCLA’s typical style of play.
Minnesota’s real opponent this season is themselves, and during the post-game handshake line, it would be appropriate for them to say “It’s not you, it’s me.” They have found many ways to lose games this season, and most of them don’t have much to do with the team they are playing. The Gophers sometimes seemed designed to beat themselves, which is especially problematic when their opponent seems designed to beat them too. In their first of hopefully a few tournament games, the Gophers can take care of UCLA as long as they take care of themselves first.