On Thursday night, the Minnesota Golden Gophers visit East Lansing for the only scheduled match-up between the two Big Ten teams this season. Let's check out what our Spartans will see from 16-12 overall, and 5-10 in Big Ten play, Minnesota.
The State of Pitino Jr. Ball, Year II...
Though Minnesota seemed to have taken a step forward in Richard Pitino's first season with the Golden Gophers by winning 25 games and the NIT, now in year two, Pitino is in the process of recruiting players who will better fit his full-court pressure system--a system which is of course similar to his father's system, Rick Pitino, at Louisville.
The press has been effective for the Golden Gophers in that it has helped Minnesota to rank third in the nation in steals, with 10.1 steals per game, and has helped Minnesota force 17.4 turnovers per game, which is good for the fifth highest average in the nation, but the steals and turnovers forced have not translated into wins in the Big Ten, especially on the road in the Big Ten season, where Minnesota is only 1-7.
It's been a frustrating season for Minnesota who entered the Big Ten season with an 11-2 record. The Golden Gophers Big Ten season got off to a bad start when they lost their first five Big Ten games with four close losses-with two of the losses by two points, another loss by four points, and another loss by only five. Since their poor start, Minnesota has gone 5-5, but the Golden Gophers have now lost their last three games: 90-71 to Indiana, 72-66 to Northwestern, and 63-53 to Wisconsin last Sunday.
Andre Hollins leads the Gophers in scoring with 14.6 points per game and also provides 4.1 rebounds, the third highest rebound average for Minnesota, despite being only 6'2". The senior guard also provides the best three-point threat for the Golden Gophers, as Hollins, shooting 42% from beyond the arc, ranks second in the Big Ten in 3-point field goals made, with 2.6 per game, and in Big Ten play, ranks first with 2.8 made threes per game.
Maurice Walker could prove to be a match-up problem for the Spartans. The 6'10" senior big man leads the Golden Gophers with 6.3 rebounds per game and is Minnesota's second highest averaging scorer with 11.6 points per game.
Senior guard DeAndre Mathieu leads the Big Ten in steals with 2.1 steals per game, but the 5'9" guard, at 8.4 points, is averaging nearly 4 points less per game in his senior year than he did in his junior season. Mathieu has also been trouble for Coach Pitino of late. Mathieu didn't start against Wisconsin on Sunday because, according to his coach, "he didn't like his senior's attitude."
Junior guard Carlos Morris provides some back court length at 6'5" and has averaged 11 points per game this season with 1.9 steals per game.
Freshman guard Nate Mason took Mathieu's place in the starting line-up against Wisconsin and scored 11 points while dishing out 5 assists and only turning the ball over once. The 6'1" Mason is averaging 9.6 points per game on the season to go with 1.9 steals.
Junior forward Joey King is 6'9" and can score, averaging 8.8 points per game, and King likes to shoot from beyond the arc with the second most threes attempted for the Golden Gophers, but, despite his size, King is only averaging 2.9 rebounds per game even with playing over 28 minutes per contest.
6'9" sophomore Charles Buggs and 6'11" senior Elliot Eliason also see minutes for Coach Pitino, with Buggs averaging 3.9 points and 2.2 rebounds in 13 minutes per game and Eliason providing an average of nearly 12 minutes for the Gophers this season while averaging 3.2 points and 3.2 rebounds.
What about that full court pressure?
The Golden Gophers full court pressure, when it's working, can wreak havoc on an opposing offense. In their win over Purdue five games ago, Minnesota forced 23 turnovers which was the highest number of turnovers forced by a Big Ten team this season, and Minnesota's 17 steals in the game were the most by a Big Ten team in league play since the 2009-2010 Golden Gophers picked up 17 steals in a game against Iowa.
Minnesota's strength is their quickness, but once the press is broken by their opponents, or, if Minnesota has to play half-court basketball, Minnesota's weaknesses are exposed--especially their lack of a dominant rebounding presence. If the press is broken, Minnesota is most likely to fall back into a 2-3 match-up zone-much like Pitino's daddy's defense at Louisville.
Thank you Illinois!
The end of the Illinois game, in which the Fighting Illini's full-court pressure forced five Michigan State turnovers during the final 4:30, hopefully alerted the Spartans, and just in time for Minnesota, where their weaknesses are against the press and the work that needed to be done to break the Minnesota pressure. That the Spartans will start out the game with their best ballhandlers on court, rather than having weaker ballhandlers on court as they did against Illinois at the end of the game due to foul trouble, should also help the Spartans. That Minnesota has struggled on the road is not really a surprise, especially with both how fouls are typically called during Big Ten play in favor of the home team, and because pressure defensive teams often also thrive off of the energy of their home crowd, so, with the game at The Breslin, two possible big advantages for Minnesota are taken away.
A Lucky Charm or Better Balance?
The Spartans are now 5-0 when Tum Tum Nairn has started. The Spartans are on a four-game winning streak since Tum Tum was inserted into the line-up by Coach Izzo, and, the Spartans also won 70-50 over Indiana early in Big Ten season with Nairn in the starting line-up.
When Tum Tum starts...Trice is really Nice...
In the past four games, with Tum Tum starting, Travis Trice has come off the bench and is averaging 16.3 points per game and shooting 47% from beyond the arc. Trice has led the Spartans is scoring over the past four games and has done so playing less than 30 minutes per game.
A Prediction...A fifth straight win!
The Golden Gophers, after having a nice run where they went 5-2 in conference play, have seemed to have hit a mental wall on their three-game losing streak and Coach Pitino seems to be looking toward next season already--looking for good moments and signs rather than worrying too much right now about wins and losses. Minnesota is more quick than physical, and with the way the Spartans have been getting after teams physically of late, and also with this game being away from "The Barn," expect no less than an 8-point win for the Spartans in East Lansing.