Once upon a time the only drama surrounding the first game of the Golden Gophers basketball season was whether their opponent could keep the game interesting until half time. It wasn’t that the Gophers were good, it was that their opponents were pretty bad. Ken Pomeroy has been ranking teams using his advanced statistical methods since the start of the 2001-2002 season, and only twice has Minnesota opened its season against a top 100 team. Even then, Wofford and Bucknell, ranked 80th and 79th, didn’t put up much of a fight. Friday’s season opener is a whole new world, when the Gophers take on Louisville, Ken Pomeroy’s third ranked team.
No, this won’t be an easy win for Minnesota, but might be for Louisville. The Cardinals return one of the best front courts in the country, and while they’ll certainly miss Russ Smith, their back court will still be formidable. Minnesota’s guards might be better than Louisville’s but the talent gap in the front court will probably be too much to overcome.
Montrezl Harrell might be the best player the Gophers play all season. At 6’8” and 240 pounds, one could easily compare him to what Trevor Mbakwe could have been if he had stayed healthy during his career. He is a very good rebounder, as you might expect for someone his size. However, he is much more than that. He is truly an elite offensive player. His effective field goal percentage ranked 35th in the country last season and he rarely commits turnovers. If he gets the ball in a position to shoot, in all likelihood he is going to score.
The Cardinals back court won’t put up gaudy numbers like Harrell, but they might be the engine that drives Louisville. Chris Jones and Terry Rozier are both elite defensive guards. Jones ranked 8th in the country in steal percentage last season while Jones was not far behind at 35th. Neither were big scorers last season, but they weren’t asked to be. They were efficient though, and seem well suited to score more if called upon. Each can shoot from the outside, around 37% from behind the three-point line, which forces defenses to make tough choices.
Richard Pitino has some very difficult decisions to make when he faces his father’s team. Does he let Joey King try to defend the much stronger and much better Montrezl Harrell. Does he use a smaller and quicker defender, maybe Carlos Morris, to try to grab the ball before it gets inside? Does he throw the biggest body he can find, someone like Elliott Eliason or Mo Walker, and try to keep Harrell as far from the rim as possible? Does he let Josh Martin, the only Gopher with the physical tools to defend Harrell, try to stop one of the best players in the country in his first college game? Or does he play zone or double team, and give Louisville’s guards open shots from the outside. There aren’t any easy answers, and there likely isn’t just one answer. Expect the Gophers to throw the kitchen sink, and maybe a few cupboards at Harrell. And expect a ton of fouls. A Hack-A-Harrell defense isn’t noble, but given his free-throw percentage in the 40s, it might be the only way to slow him down.
If the Gophers can contain Harrell, which means keeping him under 20 points and 10 rebounds, they might just have a shot to win. Walker and Eliason should be relatively successful against a Louisville front line that has limited size and experience after Harrell. Carlos Morris may get lost on defense, but his scoring might be enough to keep his match-up with Wayne Blackshear even. Minnesota’s guards should be able to outscore Louisville, and if they can limit turnovers, no small feat for Gopher guards even against bad teams, they might be able to make up for some of Louisville’s advantage at the power forward position. If Harrell dominates though, nothing else will matter.
Any upset, and really any basketball game, is determined by creating opportunities and making the most of them. The Cardinals, despite being an elite offensive rebounding team, tend to get a bit lazy on the defensive glass. Getting extra opportunities, and scoring second and third chance points, will be crucial if the Gophers hope to keep the game winnable. Similarly, forcing more turnovers than they commit, while extremely difficult, would take away one of Louisville’s strengths.
The big question each November and December is how good the Gophers really are. They’ll rack up wins against bad teams, but there will still be more questions than answers until the Big Ten season starts. Louisville is one of the best teams in the country. While we won’t know how good the Gophers will be by the end of the season, this November, we’ll at least know how good they are at the start of the season.