After the world's worst Minnesota sporting weekend I almost forgot that we now get to welcome Northwestern and their boring ass offense and amorphous blob of an unsolvable zone to the Barn. Since no matter how hard I try to ignore this fact it won't go away, we might as well hit up a preview of sorts, eh?
1. If Kevin Coble's hurt, why is Northwestern better this year than last year? Mainly because Coble v. 2.0 is on the scene in the form of John Shurna. He's gangly and awkward, yet fundamentally sound and effective all at the same time. He was a three-star dork coming out of high school and wasn't heavily recruited and had a pretty non-descript freshman year but has exploded this season, more than doubling his scoring average (from 7 to 17), rebounding average (3 to 7), and assists (1 to 2.5). Probably roid related. Solid player (and also a member of my fantasy team, the Rick Rickert All-Stars).
Shurna isn't the only Wildcat to make a major leap this year. Point guard Michael Thompson, who has inexplicably started going by the moniker "Juice", has increased his scoring by about 50% while increasing his assists and decreasing his turnovers and has already dropped 20+ against three good teams (Purdue, Notre Dame, NC State). Jeremy Nash, the reptillian-like head to the aforementioned amorphous blob, is suddenly scoring almost ten points a game as a senior after averaging less than 3.5 througout his career and is stealing nearly two balls a game. He's a major pest. Add in major contributions from freshman Drew Crawford and it's easy to see why not only are they an NCAA contender this year, but could be real threat next year as well.
2. Can you tell me more about this Crawford fella? Sure. Crawford, like most Nor'westerners, was a three-star recruit, but unlike most of them he was heavily recruited with offers from Wake Forest and Oklahoma State but chose to sign with the Wildcats due to his experience with one of the team's assistant coaches who coached his 7th grade AAU team and academic reasons (he had a 4.2 GPA in high school and scored 31 on his ACTs). He's already made an impact at third on the team in scoring, rebounding, and three-pointers made and is a very versatile player at 6-5. He can go off huge, with games of 35, 25, and 22 already this year, but can also be shut down (6 games of under 5 points). Containing Crawford is going to be huge tomorrow. Although Shurna and Thompson are the big guns, Crawford might be the most dangerous. Like a sub-machine gun.
3. So who are the keys for the Gophers? It seems pretty obvious if you ask me, and that's Devoe Joseph and Blake Hoffarber. Joseph is the new point guard, and will be the main man responsible for dealing with that zone. I like this, because a good way to beat a zone is to penetrate the gaps, and although Nolen could penetrate, he sure couldn't finish - just like you. Devoe will have to balance dribble-penetration and smart passes with getting his own shot - not easy against the Wildcat zone, but I have faith.
As far as the Hoff goes, I am sure you remember how Dawger's boyfriend Jamal Abu-Shamala lit up Northwestern every time they played. There are two reasons for that: it's a zone and it's not an athletic team. Well, they still play zone, they still aren't overly athletic (even with Crawford now), and Hoffarber is ten times the player Shamala was (and that might be low). He should be able to get his shots early and often, and if he is still red hot could knock this game out in a hurry.
4. If Minnesota manages to pull this out, is this going to end up being a win over an NCAA Tournament team? Well, probably not, but there's a shot. If Northwestern loses to the Gophers, that drops them to 3-5 in conference play and 14-6 overall. Currently sitting at 56th in RPI (9 spots ahead of the Gophers) and 74th in Strenght of Schedule, they'd certainly have their work cut out for them. They do have a signature win over Purdue and a whole host of medium-good wins (NC State, Iowa State, Stanford, Notre Dame), so I'd bet 9-9 in the conference would have a shot to get them in. They still play Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State all twice so winning all of those gets them to 9-9. It's not likely, but it's possible. FYI that would mean the Gophers have a whole three wins over tournament teams. Joy.
5. In honor of the nerds, can you break this down numbers-wise? Northwestern ranks 62nd in the country in offensive efficiency, 94th in defensive efficiency, and 288th in tempo. The Gophers rank 63rd offensively, 12th defensively, and 68th in tempo. The Wildcats biggest strengths are taking care of the basketball (24th in not turning it over), defending the three (opponents shoot just 28% against - 19th in the country), and shooting the basketball (84th in effective field goal %). Minnesota's weaknesses are getting offensive rebounds (173rd), allowing offensive rebounds (176th), and defending the three pointer (117th). The Gophers' strengths are causing turnovers (8th), defending the two-point shot (15th - just 41.8%), and causing steals (7th) and blocks (7th). Northwestern's weakness are getting offensive rebounds (256th), getting their shots blocked (245th), and defending the two-point shot (205th - allowing 48.6%).
What's all that mean? The teams matchup fairly well, and this could be a tight one. Will Blake's hot shooting overcome a Wildcat defense that defends the three-pointer well? Can Devoe (and Westbrook) get inside the zone and create opportunities? Will the Gophers interior defense stifle the Cats inside players? I don't know, but I know that things like "desperation" and "seriously need to win this one" actually go a long way in college basketball. Plus, they're a bunch of nerds.
Gophers 70, Northwestern 64.