It wouldn’t be February without a bit of drama surrounding the Golden Gophers basketball program, both on and off the court. In a complete unexpected turn of events, the drama might not be unwelcome. On the court, Minnesota’s win over Northwestern means the Illinois game on Wednesday has big NCAA tournament implications. Off the court, Wally Ellenson has chosen the sport at which he is most likely to succeed.
We’ll get the Ellenson news out of the way first. The never used small forward, and world-class high jumper has left the basketball team. The departure seems generally amicable. Richard Pitino no longer has to worry about keeping Ellenson happy, and Ellenson no longer has to spend his time wishing he could be high jumping. The timing isn’t ideal, and it should have been obvious to everyone involved that this would be the eventual outcome. Everyone wins though. The Gopher track teams gets the services of Ellenson on a more full-time basis. Ellenson can focus on sport that will probably land him in the Olympics some day. Richard Pitino loses an unhappy player and gains a scholarship.
With that out of the way, there is a pretty big basketball game at The Barn. Thanks to general mediocrity of fringe NCAA tournament teams, eight conference wins still seems like enough for the Gophers to make the NCAA tournament. There are only two “should-win” games left on the schedule. The first is Wednesday night against last place Illinois, and the second is the last game of the regular season against 11th place Penn State. Only needing to beat the two worst teams in the conference to make the tournament is a great position to be in, but losing either of these games probably ruins any chance for the Gophers to make the tournament. No pressure, right?
Minnesota’s defense has been a bit improved in recent weeks, but still isn’t quite where it needs to be for the Gophers to comfortably make the tournament. Luckily, the Illini offense is less functional in a lot of ways than the Northwestern offense that couldn’t crack 50 points on Sunday. Basketball is a very simple game in which a team tries to put the ball in the basket, and no team does a worse job of putting the ball in the basket than Illinois. They are the worst two-point shooting team and worst three-point shooting team in the Big Ten. They are a decent free-throw shooting team, but get to the free-throw line less often than all but one team. The recipe for defensive success if pretty simple. Don’t allow open shots at the rim, and collect most of the dozens of available defensive rebounds.
Even though the Illini’s offensive struggles should be enough to give the Gophers a very good chance to win, Minnesota should focus on getting their own offensive act together. Even though the Gophers couldn’t manage to score a point per possession against Northwestern, their offense was pretty good when they weren’t giving the ball away on 29% of possessions. If the Gophers have even an average shooting game against Illinois, they’ll be in great shape to win. If the Gophers commit a lot of turnovers, as they occasionally do, Illinois could get a lot of fast break opportunities. Big Ten teams, even those that can’t shoot, make most of their lay-ups and dunks.
A winning Wednesday would give the Gophers four chances to clinch another trip to the NCAA tournament. If they manage to beat Iowa, Ohio State, or Michigan, they would be a tournament lock. Eight conference wins won’t make for a comfortable Selection Sunday, but should still be enough to make the tournament. None of that will matter if the Gophers can’t beat Illinois.
Yes, this is a big game.