Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Game Preview: Minnesota Gophers vs. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

There are basically two interesting story lines for tonight's Gophers vs. Jackrabbits matchup:  the return of Al Nolen and the return of Nate Wolters.

Less interesting to me is the Wolters story, yet another heart-warmer about a kid from Minnesota (St. Cloud) who was not recruiting by the Gophers, signed with a smaller school, as has gone on to find some success (currently averaging 19 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals per game).  He is deadly from three (46%) but can score in a lot of ways, and obviously is good with the ball, as he not only averages those 6 assists but does it without turning the ball over - just 1.5 per game - and is a big reason why the Jackrabbits are one of the best teams in the country at taking care of the basketball.  They turn it over on just 15% of their possessions, good enough for #2 in the entire country behind just BYU.

Along with Wolters, they have three other very solid guards in Clint Sargent (13.5 ppg), Chad White (10.4 ppg), and Griffen Callahan (9.8).  White (51%) and Callahan (49%) are excellent three point shooters, while Sargent (28%) is a bomber who leads the team in attempts.  Obviously this team is perimeter oriented, and since they don't turn it over they are going to get their shots.  Naturally, this worries me because the Gophers continue to show an inability to cover the perimeter.  Which brings me to storyline #2.

Al Nolen will return, playing for the first time since a foot injury kept him out after the NDSU game.  Since then we've seen Minnesota lose to Virginia due to a lack of energy and perimeter defense, and barely win over such great teams as Cornell, St. Joe's, Eastern Kentucky, and Akron, letting these teams stay in the game (or lead for much of it) due to a lack of energy and perimeter defense.  Can Al Nolen fix these issues by himself?

It's hard to do a statistical comparison of the team pre and post Nolen injury, because the schedule was so much more difficult before he got hurt, but the results in point spread alone are interesting.  The only true cupcake they played with him in the lineup was North Dakota State, a game the Gophers won by 19.  Their four wins over the crap teams they beat with him out - all four of which rank as worse than NDSU according to - they won by less (5, 10, 13, and 8).  In all four of those game (and Virginia) they either trailed or the game was tight into the second half or halftime - whereas in the NDSU game they started to pull away in the first half and never looked back, something a quality team should do against this level of competition.

That's not to say they were perfect with Nolen, of course.  Siena kept the game tight, but the way they blew out NDSU, the way they ran away from Western Kentucky in the second half, and the impressive wins over North Carolina and especially West Virginia say that this is a far different team with Al Nolen out there.  His numbers might not be the most impressive, and he drives me crazy from time-to-time, but his energy, his ball-handling, his defense, and his ability to get past anybody off the dribble are so valuable to this team - something I didn't quite understand until he was gone.  Like that song Candle in the Wind.

He completely controls the game when he's on the court, and the Gophers don't have anybody who can match his skill set when he's not there.  Chip Armelin may be as fast, but he doesn't dribble as well.  Blake can probably handle the ball as well, but he's far slower on both ends of the court.  Devoe Joseph is a much better shooter, but can't handle the ball.  And nobody is as good at reading a pass before it's made and getting into the passing lane.  Nolen ranks 26th in the country in steal percentage at 5%, which means he steals the ball on 5% of the opponents possessions when he's on the court.  An incredible number that ranks 8th if you only look at major college players and if you count Oregon State as a major college.

I'm not exactly sure why I'm writing so much about him, especially with very few numbers and stats, but maybe this is my apology.  I've bashed Nolen like crazy for his shortcomings without stopping to appreciate what it is he does well and what he brings to this team, not to mention how much they need him.  He's still going to drive me nuts every time he picks up his dribble in the lane with no clue what he's going to do with it, and I really wish he had a reliable jump shot, but he's far better than I gave him credit for.  I love you Al.  You're the best (and I'm not just saying this because he's on my fantasy team).

I believe.

Minnesota 90, South Dakota State 60.

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