Well here we go. After two less than inspiring efforts in their two exhibition wins the Gophers jump into the real season with a tester right out of the gate against last year's Patriot League champ Bucknell, who has essentially their whole team back. The Bison are accustomed to being dangerous, having knocked off Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament and Arkansas in 2006, but it's worth noting that they haven't won a meaningful non-conference game since beating Xavier back in 2006-2007 and had their doors blown off by UCONN in the first round of last year's tournament
That's not to say they aren't going to be a handful, because as I mentioned they have a whole lot back from last year, starting with Minnesota native Mike Muscala. Muscala is a big dude at 6-11, 235 lbs., and is a force on the interior (15 pts & 7 rebs per game) but also has a good mid-range jumper. With Mbakwe and/or Sampson on him he's going to have his work cut out for him, and neither he nor Bucknell as a whole were much of an offensive rebounding team last year so the biggest key will be defending those first shots, and that's exactly what worries me about the game tonight, because Bucknell has a ridiculous amount of shooters.
Four returning players shot better than 35% from three last year and the team hit at 40% last year, 7th best in the country. Especially scary is shooting guard Bryson Johnson who shot 46% from behind the arc last year while setting a school record for 3-point makes. Throw in Bryan Cohen (44%, and oh by the way the two-time Patriot League defensive player of the year) and Cameron Ayers (36%) and we are going to find out in an awful hurry if the Gophers weakness of the past few years is a thing of the past or something that is again going to rip fans' souls out, and I'm really hoping I'm not about to go watch another Virginia game.
Basically this game is going to come down to a few key points:
1. The three-point shooting thing I was just talking about. Once again, Bucknell is a terrible offensive rebounding team and with Sampson, Mbakwe, and Rodney Williams I don't expect the Gophers to give up many offensive boards. For Bucknell to win they're going to have to hit shots, and they can do it. It's up to the Gophers to defend the perimeter and make them at least make tough shots rather than wide open ones. I'm terrified for this.
2. Andre Hollins handling pressure. As mentioned Bucknell has the two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year in Bryan Cohen. Since the Gophers don't have an obvious perimeter weapon for him to guard it makes the most sense to put him on the freshman point guard to disrupt the offense (although I'm hoping that Bucknell's coach buys into the hype and puts Cohen on Rodney). Hollins will need to be able to get the team into the offense because both Maverick and Welch will get eaten alive. Either Andre or him in combination with his brother Austin will need to be smart with the ball.
3. Which Ralph Sampson shows up. Bucknell has a huge advantage over most mid-low majors in Muscala, because most teams on that tier don't have a 6-11 dude who has both some athleticism and some skills. Unfortunately for them their only other size is a 6-8 power forward who played less than 5 minutes per game last year, so unless he's suddenly ready for prime time Bucknell is going to have to choose to put him on either Mbakwe or Sampson and hope the other one doesn't kill them. If Ralph is invisible and/or terrible that allows Muscala to be on Mbakwe - a matchup I'd still expect Trevor to win, but not as easily as if Muscala has to guard Sampson instead. Hopefully Ralph realizes this is his last year and he should, you know, try and stuff.
4. Bucknell's point guard play. The only player Bucknell loses from last year is their starting point guard, obviously not an easy position to fill. The have Cameron Ayers ready to go, but he was more of a combo wing type last year than a true point, so this will be a big test. We didn't see much pressing by the Gophers in the two exhibition games, but with a brand new point guard as the opponent it would be a wasted opportunity not to give it a try tonight. I'd even say it's downright stupid not to. So why am I so convinced they won't do it?
So there you have it. Bucknell is a smart, veteran team with some good players, great shooters, and enough ability to give the Gophers a scare. They're also undersized, not nearly as athletic as Minnesota, and are very likely going to get destroyed by Trevor Mbakwe.
Minnesota 74, Bucknell 66.