Sports, for better or worse, can be a distraction from the perils of the world. The N.I.T. tournament in New York City was supposed to be that for Gopher basketball fans, and perhaps it can still be. However, the arrest of Daquein McNeil on suspicion of domestic abuse has distracted from that distraction. Zips wrote about the basketball impact earlier today. The non-basketball impact is going to be much more significant, both for McNeil, and the alleged victim. A few things seem to be true. McNeil has had a very difficult life, domestic violence is a learned behavior, and luckily there are wonderful organizations doing great work in Minneapolis to help both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse. Regardless of McNeil’s future with the team, hopefully he gets the help he needs.
There is actually some basketball to be played in New York City, and the Gophers were going to be challenged regardless of any off-court incidents. St. John’s, Wednesday’s opponent, will be playing on their quasi-home court, and road wins are hard to come by, even if the Gophers have won more games at Madison Square Garden than anywhere outside of Williams Arena in recent years.
It is anyone’s guess if St. John’s is any good. Like Minnesota in most seasons, they opened the season against competition that would generously be described as mediocre. They struggled against Franklin Pierce, winning by 13 after trailing at the half, and they have 19 and 13 point wins over NJIT and LIU respectively. Those are not good teams, and the margins of victory were unimpressive. However, the transitive property isn’t real, and sluggish efforts against bad teams don’t necessarily predict performance against good teams. If, by chance, St. John’s past performance is predictive of future results, and the Gophers can focus on basketball, they could be on their way to a solid non-conference win.
Middle of the road major conference teams, like St. John’s, tend to be middle of the road in most statistical categories. St. John’s, on the other hand, is either really, really good, or really, really bad. They are top 20 in taking care of the basketball, avoiding blocks, avoiding steals, two point field goal defense, and blocking shots. They are in the 300s or worse in forcing turnovers, offensive rebounding, and three point shooting.
The Gophers haven’t shot the ball very well this season, and haven’t needed to shoot well yet (except for Louisville). Given St. John’s stout defense, they probably won’t shoot very well on Wednesday. St. Johns’s has four made three pointers this season against two horrible Division I teams, so they probably can’t shoot against anyone. Both teams will need to find another way to win, and that will involve finding extra possessions.
Minnesota’s defense currently ranks 11th in the country in forcing turnovers. It should become clear early on if the Gophers defense has been beating up on bad teams, or if they can force turnovers against good ball handlers. We should also find out if St. John’s can take care of the ball, or if they benefited from bad teams with bad defense. St. John’s is a bad shooting team, and the Gophers like to take a lot of bad shots, so rebounding will be important too. If the Gophers can control the defensive glass and get some extra chances of their own, they can win without forcing a ton of turnovers.
St. John’s struggles on offense, and they have only two major offensive threats, in a pair of 6’4” guards. Rysheed Jordan and D’Angelo Harrison aren’t particularly good three-point shooters, Jordan will take a lot of two point jumpers, and attack the rim, while Harrison attempts half of his shots from the outside, where he is 2-9 against D1 teams. Jamal Branch, a 6’3” slashing guard, and Sir’Dominic Pointer, a 6’6” slashing forward, are actually the teams two most efficient players, but don’t shoot enough for the offense to be successful as it could be. The Gophers would be well-advised to limit their opportunities. Chris Obekpa will be mentioned a lot during the game. He isn’t an offensive threat beyond an occasional put back dunk, but he will be a problem for the Gophers offense. He is the 7th best shot blocker in the country this season, and was the third best last season. Deandre Mathieu will probably try to dunk on him, and might not live to tell about it.
The Gophers are a better team on paper, but as we all know, games aren’t played on paper. We’ve learned a bit about the Gophers’ basketball abilities over the last two weeks. We’ll learn a lot about the mental toughness on Wednesday night.