Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Game Preview: Minnesota Gophers vs. Indiana Hoosiers

Once again, rather than rehashing everything I wrote in the previous game vs. Indiana's preview (which you can peruse at your leisure right here), I'm going to just focus on some things that have changed since the last time these two teams met, a hard fought 67-63 Gopher win here in Minneapolis.

1)  So, like, is Indiana good now?  Let's not get crazy.  Despite the win over Illinois (vastly overrated) and pushing Michigan State to overtime (vastlier overrated), this still isn't a very good team, but there's no doubt they're are pesky, plucky, gritty, and very David Eckstein-y.  On top of that, they have actually developed one of the better offenses (efficiency wise) in the country, ranking at #41 in the country in that metric, although that's still 8th in the Big Ten.  The nearly all white guy Hoosiers are an excellent shooting team, knocking down 38.4% of their threes (37th) and 52.6% of their twos (29th) and any team that has the ability to shoot like that can be dangerous on any given night.

2)  What's up with this Jordan Hulls cat?  He's slowly developing into a hell of a point guard.  With Maurice Creek slowed and now out with that knee injury and Verdell Jones banged up as well, somebody had to step up and help out Christian Watford, and Hulls answered the call.  After scoring in double figures in just 5 of the team's first 12 games, he's now hit that mark in 10 of the last 11, and scored 17 and 18 in those two big games against the Illini and Spartans.  He can get loose from three (49% this year), but one of his biggest strength is putting the ball on the floor and getting into the lane.  I'm not so worried about Watford, because he does the majority of his damage inside and the Gopher bigs held him down in Minneapolis, but I'm very concerned about who checks Hulls with Nolen out.  That will probably decide this matchup. 

3)  Can the Hoosiers follow Purdue's blueprint to slowing the Gopher offense?  Purdue held the Gophers to their second-lowest point total of the season (and Wisconsin shouldn't count) and one of the main ways they did it was staying up in Hoffarber's face and making it very difficult to get the offense started anywhere near where it should, leaving Blake to pass off to the wing further out than they'd like.  I'd love to say this was an anomaly due to a great defender, but Purdue used Ryne freaking Smith.  With Hoff's (god love 'em) inability to drive past his defender, Indiana won't need a lightning quick defender to replicate this success.  All they'll need is a pesky, annoying white dude, and that is something their is no shortage of in Bloomington.

4)  So are we screwed without Al Nolen then?  If you remember back to the last time these teams played, the Gophers fell behind and were only able to come back and grab the win due to some incredible play from Nolen, causing me to write this love missive (which is probably more romantic than anything I've ever said to Mrs. W, sadly).  The way he brought the team back was simple enough:  getting passed his man and into the lane, then either scoring or finding an open teammate; simple enough for him, I should say.  Since the Gophers currently lack any player with the capacity to do that, other than maybe Chip Armelin whose ball-handling is too suspect, I'd say this doesn't bode well for them. 

5)  Is this a must win, and can they do it?  I wouldn't say it is a must win, because I think I'd actually be more impressed with a win than disheartened by a loss, but it is the kind of game that can help put a more accurate label on this team.  Road wins are always hard to come by in the Big Ten, and kenpom.com predicts that although the Gophers win it will be by a mere point, so you can expect a hard fought game.  I still believe that the three-big lineup is a huge weapon, and one that could potentially destroy Indiana (along with many other teams), but the Purdue game reminded me that it doesn't matter how good your big guys are, somebody has to get them the ball.

Indiana 66, Gophers 60

6)  Wait, after you wrote all this you just saw the news that Christian Watford is out for an indefinite period with a wrist injury.  Doesn't this change everything you wrote?  Yes.  Yes it does.  Now they're whiter, pluckier, and nearly devoid of any talent.

Gophers 70, Indiana 58

And finally, my Big Ten Power Poll for the week:

1)  Ohio State Buckeyes.  Not only the best team in the conference, but the best team in the country.

2)  Wisconsin Badgers.  No big surprise they were able to beat Purdue at home, but it was impressive the way they were able to come back with a minute left after squandering a 6-point lead late.  Who could have guessed Ryan Evans would be the guy who hit the biggest shot of the game? 

3)  Purdue Boilermakers.  They look good and definitely pass the eye test, but I can't really get on board until they manage a really good win.  Their two best victories are home wins over Michigan State and Minnesota - not the most impressive resume. 

4)  Minnesota Gophers.  Whether they are merely an NCAA Tournament team or an NCAA Tournament team that can do some damage depends on the success of the 3-big lineup, Blake's ability to handle the point, and the development of some freshman (and if Rodney Williams can step up an offer some consistent scoring).  That's probably too many ifs for this team to make a significant March run.

5)  Illinois Fighting Illini.  Most overrated team in America. 

6)  Penn State Nittany Lions.  Jeff Brooks went down with a shoulder injury last night and Penn State needed either Andrew Jones or David Jackson to step up to give them an inside presence if they were going to compete with Illinois - neither could do it.  If Brooks is out for any kind of extended period of time, even more than 1 game, kiss that long shot NCAA bid good-bye.

7)  Michigan State Spartans.  Most underachieving team in the country, or just that overrated?  Watching them try to play defense, I'm starting to lean towards the latter.  Something has to change, and in a hurry, or you're looking at an NIT team.  If anybody can figure this out, it's Izzo.

8)  Northwestern Wildcats.  The only thing keeping them this high is that they've beaten the three teams below them.  What a disappointing season for them.

9)  Michigan Wolverines.  Two game win streak is a nice start towards turning the ship around.  With a lot of youth on board - there isn't a single senior on the roster - they could be setting themselves up to be a nice sleeper team next year.

10)  Indiana Hoosiers.  The big win over Illinois finally gives Crean something to build on, but did the choke away of a second one (at Mich State) deflate the momentum?  If that didn't do it, the injury to Watford probably did - that's a killer.

11)  Iowa Hawkeyes.  The signs of life out of Indiana and Michigan doom Iowa to the basement

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