Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gophers vs. Texas Preview - They Can Win This

When the brackets came out, after I got over my intense wave of relief at seeing Minnesota called, I realized the matchup for the Gophers was about as good as I could have hoped for. Even though this team almost made the Final Four last year, they are a far, far cry from last year's team. It might seem odd, seeing as the only player they lost off of last year's team is DJ Augustine, but it also makes sense. Augustine was that good, and may have been the best point guard in the country last year, and they haven't been able to replace that.

They tried to convert A.J. Abrams, one of the best shooters in the country, into a point guard and that experiment failed miserably. The 5-11 Abrams averaged just 1.4 assists per game this season (season high = 4) to go against 1.3 turnovers. He is still an extremely dangerous shooter, and hit just 39% from three this season but that was mainly due to defense that were absolutely keyed on him. He has one of the quickest releases in the country, and if the Gophers give him an inch he can get his shot off. If he's hot and getting looks, you can pack this one up early.

The only true point guard on the roster is 6-0 Turkish import Dogus Balbay. Balbay has done a nice job in his 20 minutes a game, putting up the best assist to turnover ratio on the team at 2.7-1.0, with just over 3 assists per game. He is also not a major offensive threat (and doesn't shoot threes) with just 3 points per game and only breaking double figures three times.

The third of three guards Texas usually starts is Justin Mason, a 6-2 combo guard who is also more of a shooting guard than a true point. Mason has done a good job, averaging 4.2 assists to go against 2.0 turnovers, but is not much of a scoring threat, putting up just 6 points per game and is not a three point threat. He does most of his damage getting into the paint, but hasn't done much damage lately, scoring in double figures just once since January.

In the paint, the Longhorns have a couple of very good, and very different big men, led by 6-7 small forward Damion James. He as an absolute beast who put up 15 points and 9 rebounds a game and carried the team at times. He can also step out and hit the three if you let him, although he's certainly not a great shooter. James is the guy who scares me more than even Abrams. An athletic, do-everything small forward? Damian Johnson will have an excellent opportunity to showcase his defense here in front of a national audience. If he can shut him down, and I think he can, the Gophers can win.

The other forward is a gigantic beast of a whale of a man, Dexter Pittman, who stands at 6-10 and 298 pounds, and that's after losing 70 pounds since getting on campus. Pittman has gone from 7 minutes, 3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game lasts year to 16 minutes, 10 points, and 5 rebounds per game this year. Perhaps the best news for the Gophers is that he can play just those 16 minutes due to his Oliver Milleresque frame and conditioning.

Off the bench, the Longhorns turn to former starter Gary Johnson and Rick Rickert clone Connor Atchley. Johnson is the team's third leading scorer behind Abrams and James at 10.5 ppg, and is another tweener type who is a good rebounder for his size at 5.6 per game at 6-6. He reminds me a lot of James, and is capable of having a big game - hit lit up Michigan State for 20. Finally, we come to Atchley, he of the clan of 6-10 guys who love the three point line and hate the paint. Sampson and Iverson struggle to guard bigger guys who live on the perimeter, but luckily Atchley has seemingly lost his shot and would struggle to beat Al Nolen in Horse this year, as his three point percentage has dropped from 41% last year to just 29% this year.

As an overall team, Texas's strengths are their defense (29th in D-efficiency) particularly defending the two (30th nationally), and their rebounding (fourth in Big 12 in overall rebounding and 21st nationally in offensive rebounding). Their biggest weakness is their outside shooting. Abrams is the only good shooter on the team, and most of their players don't even bother to look to shoot out there. Point guard play is also suspect.

The Gophers can win this game by going with a tough man-to-man, applying high pressure. If they try to use a zone, they are going to get killed. Mason and James are way too good at penetrating a zone (think the opposite of the Gopher guards/forwards) and that will lead to easy baskets inside as well as open shots for Abrams. Play a man-to-man with Nolen on Mason, Westbrook on Abrams (assuming L-Dub brings out the effort for the tournament), DJ on DJ, and Iverson or Sampson on Pittman. You are probably going to have to go with either Iverson or Sampson and not both, because Texas is small and quick and I don't think the advantage you gain with the Twin Towers on offense negates the problems you will have on defense, so expect Devoe or Hoffarber to get the start at a third guard and the Balbay assignment. Keeping Tejas off the offensive boards is going to be huge.

On offense, Texas is mostly man-to-man, which helps the Gophers, although it wouldn't shock me to see them go zone based on the issues the Gophers have had. The strategy and keys are the same: get the ball inside, don't rely on the three pointer, and take care of the ball. Same things we've been seeing all season long, and based on the team's play in the Big Ten tournament I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm also still cautiously waiting for Hoffarber to heat up - he seems to thrive in big games. Another concern is Westbrook going into F You Mode early when it's not needed, and digging the Gophers a hole.

In the end, I think the Gophers can shut down Texas effectively. They match up well with the Texas offense, which is predicated on the penetration of James and Mason and I think Johnson and Nolen can control that. But you have to score points to win in the NCAA tournament, and going against a top flight defense like Texas I don't think the Gophers have the firepower to get it done in the end.

Texas 63, Minnesota 55.