Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Game Preview: Minnesota Gophers vs. Purdue Boilermakers

Can you be an NCAA title contender with two stars and a bunch of role-players?  I was one of many to write off the Boilers chances after Robbie Hummel went down with yet another injury, but they are looking awfully good thus far this year.  And although I can't remember the last team that was so reliant on two players (JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore score 50% of the team's points), those two might be good enough and might have the perfect complimentary pieces around them to make a big run come March.

Johnson, the best player in the Big Ten in my estimation, is the team's leading scorer (19.4 per game), rebounder (8.3 per game), and shot-blocker (2.5 per game).  He is so versatile with the ball that he's nearly impossible to stop.  He has a variety of moves on the inside, can hit a stand-still jumper out to 18 feet, and has a really nice turnaround that's very reminiscent of Hakim Warrick.  He's also one of the best rebounders in the conference, on either end, and he's going to make Sampson/Mbakwe work and work hard on both sides of the ball.  Really the only weakness I can think of is that I don't recall him being particularly adept at putting the ball on the floor, so if the Gopher defenders can get out on him on the perimeter and force him to give up the ball, then try to keep him off the block, the Gophers do have at least an outside shot at controlling him - although he's scored in double digits every game this year.

Moore (18.8 pts, 6.0 rebs, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals per game) is just as big a concern, if not bigger given the Gophers' lack of perimeter defense this year.  Moore can score from anywhere - he's an excellent shooter from three (42%), has a quality mid-range game, and can put the ball on the ground and drive.  He's struggled the last two games from the outside (1-8 from three combined, just 15 total points), and the Gophers will need that to keep up.  Even if his shot isn't falling, however, he does enough other things on the court with his rebounding and ability to find open teammates that he can still have a big impact on the game.

Simply put, limit those two and you have a chance.  There is, however, one other major concern I'll point out, and that's junior guard Ryne Smith.  Simply put, he's Hoffarber/Diebler in black (uniform, not skin).  Since fellow shooter John Hart went down to injury, Smith has really stepped up his game.  Since Big Ten play started, he's been unconscious.  In Purdue's four conference games he's shot 5-6, 2-7, 5-5, and 6-9 from behind the line for a 67% accuracy mark, and is averaging 17 points per game in those four contests.  All he does is shoot threes, but he does it extremely well (52% overall for the season).  With all the attention that Johnson and Moore draw, he's going to get open looks.  Against a team like Minnesota and their poor perimeter defense, he's going to get even more.

The last two individuals I want to mention for Purdue and Lewis Jackson and D.J. Byrd.  Jackson is the lightning quick midget point guard who is almost impossible to keep out of the lane.  He's not much for shooting (just 1-5 on threes this year), but uses his quickness to get lay-ups and short floaters as well as set up teammates for open looks (4.2 assists per game).  He's basically a slightly better offensive version of Al Nolen without the defense.  Byrd, on the other hand, is the next in the Brian Cardinal/Chris Kramer line.  I mention him here not for you to fear him, but rather to warn you that you are going to be annoyed by him.

As a team, the Boilers are formidable as well.  They rank 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 2nd in defensive, and the only thing they don't do well is that they're slightly below the national average in free-throw percentage (68.1% vs. 68.6%).  In fact, they are so solid on defense the only metrics they don't rank in the top 50 nationally in are blocked shot percentage (86th) and steal percentage (153rd), but that doesn't really matter since apparently they just make you throw the ball out of bounds all day (24th in turnover percentage).  It's going to be tough going on the offensive end for your beloved rodents.

It's going to be tough all around.  Purdue is an outstanding team, and their would be no shame in losing this one, which is why it's not a "must-win" game.  It is, however, a "must-compete" game.  All we've seen out of this team since the West Virginia game (other than controversy) is poor performances against bad teams at home, and decent showings against good teams on the road.  This is the Gophers' first opportunity to take on a good team at home, and they need to come out strong, play well, and keep this one tight if not win it.  A three-point loss will convince me we have an NCAA caliber team, while a 15-point loss will have me making my NIT ticket reservations.

If the Gophers can limit at least one of Johnson or Moore while keeping the three-point line in check, continue to be a strong rebounding team, get out in transition and run whenever they can to avoid the half-court game, and get the ball into the bigs in the paint when they are in the half-court offense, they can win this.  A lot of ifs, yes, but this is the kind of game a good team can use to make a statement.  I am positive I am making a mistake, but something tells me this is exactly what the Gophers are going to do.  It goes against everything in my pessimistic nature, but:

Minnesota 70, Purdue 66.

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