So, we head to Minneapolis to take on Minnesota for the second time in 10 days (thanks, schedulers!). Briefly updating the relevant Gopher stats:
- Minnesota sits at 12-6 (3-3), with notable wins over Butler and Ohio State, and losses to Portland, Texas A&M, Miami (OH), Purdue, us, and Indiana.
- 10 Gopher players average more than 10 minutes per game. However, this group includes Al Nolen, who will be out of the lineup on Saturday. (See below.)
- Lawrence Westbrook still leads the Gophers with 13.3 ppg on a .509/.422/.744 shooting line; Blake Hoffarber and Damian Johnson trail behind with 11.4 and 10.5 ppg, respectively.
- Since our last meeting in East Lansing, the Gophers have only played one game: an 81-78 overtime loss in Bloomington. The Daily Gopher analyzes:
The defensive pressure that Minnesota typically wins because of simply wasn't there. During a first half in which it looked like the Hoosiers might put the game away, Minnesota's hyped ball-pressure defense looked lost. The rotation on defense wasn't there and too many of our guards allowed the Hoosiers to easily penetrate into the lane. The result was easy baskets for Indiana and far fewer turnovers created then usual. And as we've all seen with this team for the past two years, when they aren't creating turnovers they simply are a middle-of-the-pack basketball team.
- KenPom still ranks Minnesota #22nd, based largely on their defensive strength. The Gophers rank 12th in defensive efficiency, 5th in defensive turnover percentage (26.6%), 7th in defensive block percentage (18.3%), and 6th in steal percentage (14.8%). It is worth noting that while Minnesota excels at forcing turnovers, our turnover-prone Spartans did a decent job holding onto the ball against the Gophers last week: the TO% was only 16.7%.
In last week's game against Minnesota, MSU was able to overcome a poor shooting performance (40.5% eFG) by 1) keeping turnovers down, as mentioned, 2) taking the ball to the hoop and getting to the foul line regularly (36.2% FTR), 3) getting second chances on offense (40% OR%), and 4) forcing Minnesota to turn the ball over quite a bit (25% TO%). The defensive effort was particularly noteworthy:
Minnesota, meanwhile, didn't perform proficiently in any of the offensive areas outside of offensive rebounding. A handful of MSU defensive lapses led to some easy baskets for Damian Johnson (14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals) and a couple open looks for Lawrence Westbrook (15 points on 3-5 three-point shooting). But they also completely shut down Blake Hoffarber by denying him open looks beyond the arc (4 points on 0-3 three-point shooting) and flustered Westbrook into some bad decisions (5 of Minnesota's 15 turnovers).
Westbrook was particularly enigmatic: Minnesota almost certainly wouldn't have stayed close had it not been for his shooting, but his late turnovers ultimately foreclosed the prospect of a Gopher comeback. Nonetheless, he's certainly the closest thing Minnesota has to a true offensive catalyst, and as such will draw a lot of defensive attention. Meanwhile, Hoffarber's offensive struggles continued against the Hoosiers: he had only 4 points, and went 0-3 on three point attempts.
Against Minnesota, Durrell Summers had one of his better games on the season (13 points and 9 rebounds) while Kalin Lucas struggled (1-10 on 2-pointers). However, a major reason why Lucas struggled was Al Nolen's defense. Happily enough, Nolen won't be playing tomorrow, or probably for the rest of the season, for that matter: he's been suspended for academic reasons. From the Barn thinks that the Gophers can overcome the loss of Nolen . . .
What we have right now is an underachieving team with no half-court offense who is sitting squarely on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. The way the Gophers are playing makes them look less and less likely that a tournament berth is attainable (the Indiana loss hurts bad). With that being said, what’s the harm in switching up who runs the offense and giving a couple guys who have shown flashed of talent the chance to prove themselves? The downside is very small while the reward could be quite large. With Devoe/Cobbs getting more playing time, who’s to say that some new chemistry can’t develop? Sure, the hit that we take on defense isn’t something to look forward to, but the offense is in dire need of a shakeup.
. . . while Down With Goldy is substantially more pessimistic:
As much as I bag on Nolen this is a huge blow to the Gophers. There's no doubting his defense (and the offense it creates off steals and turnovers), which I think is the best of any perimeter player in the conference, and his ability to get in the lane is a valued asset on this team (leaving aside how he seems to have no idea what to do with the ball when he gets there half the time). There are no other penetrators on this team. Westbrook is pretty much the only other guy who can get by his defender off the dribble (I'm not ready to credit Devoe with that just yet) and you know he's not exactly looking to distribute the basketball - he's a pure scorer.
Devoe Joseph is mentioned by both bloggers as a possible Nolen replacement, and they may be onto something, as he was one of the few Gophers who merited praise for his performance against Indiana. In any event, Nolen's absence from the lineup certainly makes me more optimistic about the chances for a big game from Kalin. And, in case you were wondering about the status of Royce White, Minnesota's equally talented-and-troubled freshman: he will apparently not be making his season debut on Saturday, as previously speculated, because he's now in more trouble.
In previewing last week's tilt, KJ identified some keys to victory:
Minnesota has a record of 9-1 when they force their opponent to turn the ball over on at least 25 percent of its possessions--vs. a record of 3-3 when they don't. The good news? MSU turned the ball over on only 19.2% and 23.0% of possesions in its two match-ups with Minnesota last season, so Tom Izzo presumably has a decent game plan against Tubby Smith's trapping full-court pressure. It's just a matter of executing it.
Beyond minimizing turnovers, MSU will need to crash the glass and attack the basket to get to the free throw line, taking advantage of Minnesota's two four-factor weaknesses. The attacking the basket part will be a little tricky, though, as two legitimate shot-blocking threats in Damian Johnson and Ralph Sampson III (who's coming back from an ankle injury). Raymar Morgan, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe will need to pick their spots to attack the basket in the halfcourt offense. (You'll recall that Morgan had a solid game despite shooting just 4-11 vs. the Gophers in the one regular season match-up he was healthy for last season: 10 rebounds and zero turnovers.)
Minnesota also allows/forces opponents to take quite a few 3-pointers, so a continuation of MSU's recent shooting proficiency from beyond the arc (.350+ in 8 of the last 9 games) would be helpful. Can Chris Allen (11-19 from 3-point range in his last 5 games) keep it going?
State will almost certainly look to be aggressive on the offensive end, to get to the line and attempt to get Johnson and Sampson in foul trouble. (Doing so may open up some perimeter looks for Lucas, Allen, Lucious, et. al., and with Nolen out, those looks will presumably be less-contested, as well.)
Gus Johnson and Greg Anthony will almost certainly discuss how much success Tom Izzo has had against Tubby Smith, and, indeed, a 10-2 record against another national championship-winning coach is a remarkable feat. MSU has won the last 7 meetings with Minnesota, and is 13-2 in the last 15 meetings (including a 4-2 record at Williams Arena). That level of success probably won't sustainable over the next 15 games, but we might be catching Minnesota at the right time: Al Nolen led the team in minutes, had almost twice as many assists as anyone else, and was one of very few offensively dynamic Gophers. The Gophers might very well struggle in their first game without their point guard. Also, Derrick Nix will be out for retribution, and would you want to mess with him?
Inexplicably, Ken Pomeroy's silly computer flies in the face of such compelling evidence and predicts a 72-69 Minnesota win. More seriously, even without Nolen, this is a Minnesota team that's strong defensively and is obviously well-coached. A full 40-minute effort (unlike what we saw against Illinois and Iowa) will be necessary to extend our undefeated conference record.