Tonight your beloved Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball team will welcome the Virginia Cavaliers to Williams Arena for the opening match-up of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. A chance to get a quality win, you ask? An opportunity to get a feel for how good the Gophers can be against a quality foe, you wonder?
No. Not at all.
Unfortunately, the way the match-ups fell gives the Gophers a sub-par opponent in the Cavs, a team that won just five conference games last year and saw it's best player booted due to academics, the starting point guard go down due to knee injury before the season started, and last year's top recruit transfer to Central Florida. Tony Bennett has the program moving in the right direction, and next year's recruiting class is one of the better ones in the country, but this year this team is sort of, well, not good.
They are 3-3, and did manage a win over Oklahoma - but then that same Oklahoma team lost to Chaminade. The good, or even mediocre, teams Virginia has played have all won handily (Wichita State by 12, Stanford by 19, and Washington by an absurd 43), and so should Minnesota.
The biggest concern when it comes to defending Virginia is power forward Mike Scott, a bruising double-double machine (17 pts, 9 rebs per game this year) who has been basically doing the same thing for three years. He's not a star, but he's an outstanding player, who is unfortunately been thrust into the "#1 option" role when he should probably be more of a complimentary player. I say that because he is too easy to shut down at times, as shown by the 0 point/3 rebs, 0 point/1 reb, and 2 point/1 reb. lines he put up in ACC play last year. He also has absolutely nothing playing next to him in the paint - the next five leading scorers are all guards, only one other post player averages more than 1.8 points per game, and that guy (Will Sherrill) is more of a perimeter guy, with 20 of his 28 field goal attempts on the year from behind the three point line.
So clearly this is a guard oriented team, and that's reflected in two of their strengths - they don't turn the ball over a ton (81st in the country) and they shoot well from three (39.4% - 46th in the country), and contrary to what you'd expect, they are excellent at keeping their opponents off the offensive boards (34th in the country). Also contrary to what you would expect, they are absolutely god awful against the three-pointer, with their opponents shooting 46.6% on the year, 339th in the country - their are only 345 teams. They are also no very good against 2-pointers, allowing 48.4% shooting and ranking 198th. An efficient offensive team like the Gophers should be able to absolutely shred them. Look for Hoff to hit about 8 three-pointers.
And that should be enough. Hoff should have good looks from three most of the game, along with Devoe Joseph if he plays, and Sampson, Mbakwe and company should be able to find open spots in the paint all game. I expect this to be similar to the Western Kentucky game in that the Gophers will probably shoot around 60% or so, although scoring will probably be down because Virginia plays a much slower game than WKU, and there should be fewer turnovers. That kind of scoring efficiency is going to be touch for the Cavs to deal with, especially since their best player isn't a "carry the team" type and should be bracketed by the Gophers' bigs fairly effectively. The one danger is that Virginia gets ridiculously hot from three - and they can.
The Cavs shot over 45% from three twice this year, and guards Billy Baron (brother of former Rhode Island sharp shooter Jimmy), Joe Harris, and Mustapha Farrakhan as well as Sherrill have all hit at least three three-pointers in a single game. If multiple guys are hot tonight, and it's possible given that the Gophers are thoroughly average at defending the three, there does exist a non-zero possibility of an upset. Ken Pomeroy gives Virginia a 12% chance of winning. I'd put it at more like 4%.
Minnesota 75, Virginia 60