The Golden Gophers open Big Ten play in an enviable position. While other teams are already out of NCAA tournament consideration, or need to dramatically improve before the post-season, Minnesota simply has to win the games they are supposed to win. Unfortunately, winning games they are supposed to win, means winning at Purdue for the first time 2005. They had their best chance in a long time last season, in another game they were supposed to win, but couldn’t get the job done in three overtimes.
The Boilermakers, if their last three games are any indication, aren’t a particularly good basketball team. They lost by double digits to Vanderbilt and Notre Dame, and lost a close game at home to Gardner Webb. The last loss was their second bad loss of the season, having previously lost to North Florida in early December. Purdue hasn’t had a winning season since the 2011-2012 campaign, and are in danger of continuing their losing season streak.
Once upon a time, early in Matt Painter’s career, the Boilemakers were consistently one the best defensive teams in the country. The bottom fell out in 2012 when Purdue’s defense slipped to 125th in the country, and this year they are 139th, and are in danger of their worst season since Gene Keady’s final year. Their defensive problems are especially disconcerting considering that they rank 12th in the country in blocked shots. A.J .Hammons and Isaac Haas are a formidable front line, and are excellent rim protectors, but when they don’t block a shot, the defense falls apart. Like a lot of Tubby Smith era teams, when the block isn’t there, neither is proper defensive rebounding position or defensive rotation, especially on the perimeter. Purdue ranks 295th in three-point defense, which the hot shooting Gophers, who are 23rd in the country in three-point accuracy, are ready to exploit.
For the Gophers, discretion must be the better part of valor. Carlos Morris and Deandre Mathieu both think they are capable of scoring over anyone and everyone. They also shouldn’t have much problem getting into the lane, but they must make good decisions once they get there. Hammons and Haas will block a lot of shots, but can’t be everywhere at once. An extra pass or a kick out to the perimeter need to be seen as a more viable option than lay-ups or dunks over seven footers. Minnesota has two losses, and it isn’t a coincidence that those losses came against teams with an imposing interior defense. Purdue shouldn’t be as an intimidating as Louisville or St. John’s, but they are big enough to alter shots, and a game plan.
On defense, the Gophers must rebound, because a missed shot is often just the first part of a Purdue offensive possession. The Boilermakers rebound nearly 38% of their misses, and second chance points are vital for a team that doesn’t shoot well from the outside or at the free-throw line. In both games against Purdue last season, the Gophers were the much better shooting team. But in both games, Purdue rebounded at least 40% of their missed shots, which turned would have been comfortable wins into a close win and the aforementioned triple overtime heartbreaker. Given their defensive rebounding problems, Minnesota’s best option is to steal the ball before Purdue has a chance to shoot. The Gophers are still the second best team in the country at stealing the ball, and force the third most turnovers. Purdue is hardly an exceptional ball handling team, but they seem to have gotten better as the season has gone on. The Gophers have been able to take the ball from every team they’ve played, but they haven’t played against a Big Ten team, with Big Ten referees, on the road, and foul trouble could be a danger.
Last season was the first time since 2005 that winning at Purdue was realistic. The combination of really bad Minnesota teams and really good Purdue teams made it exceedingly difficult to win. This will be the second year in a row when a probably decent Gopher team will face a probably mediocre at best Purdue team in West Lafayette. Good teams win these kinds of games. By tomorrow evening, we’ll know just how good the Gophers are.