Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gophers vs. Fairfield Preview

So the Gophers sit at 2-0 with two double-digit victories over teams with legitimate chances to win their admittedly low-level conferences and reach the NCAA Tournament.  Yet all is not well, because although the final margin of both games would lead you to believe these were fairly easy wins they most certainly were anything but.  Falling behind in the second half twice and coming back twice actually indicates some good characteristics this team has, but if that becomes a habit one of these games they aren't going to come back and are going to end up with a silly loss on their record.  This could be that game, because Fairfield is very likely the best team the Gophers will face this non-conference season outside of Virginia Tech.

Fairfield is on a nice little run, winning 13 and 15 conference games the last two years, with 23 and 25 wins overall and a postseason victory in each year (1 CIT, 1 NIT).  Obviously the goal is to win the MAAC Tournament and make the NCAA Tournament, and this could be the year because they're loaded (for a low-major) with four starters back from last year and two impact transfers coming in.

It all starts with Derek Needham, who has led the Stags in scoring and assists in each of the last two seasons and was all-MAAC in both seasons.  He's a big-time playmaker (5 assists per game average) and excellent defender, but he's also got quite a bit of chucker in him (career 37% shooter, 31% from three).  Keeping Needham out of the lane and away from the rim will be imperative for the Gophers.  Forcing Needham to beat you by throwing jumpers at the rim is a winning strategy, letting him penetrate and find open teammates is a good way to end this game in with an L.

Other than Needham the biggest threat to the Gophers is 6-5 wing Rakim Sanders, a transfer from Boston College who averaged over 11 points per game in each of his three seasons as an Eagle, put up over 20 per game in the team's four game trip to Italy this summer, and scored 25 in the Stags last game.  He can shoot it from deep and is also comfortable putting the ball on the floor and taking it to the rack.  Between Needham and Sanders the Gopher guards are going to have their hands full defensively.  There's a lot of talk about Rodney and Austin Hollins potential as defensive stoppers, and this will be a real chance for not just one but both of them to show what they can do - and they'll need to be successful in order for the Gophers to win.

Fairfield is also well staffed in the paint, starting with seven-footer Ryan Olander.   He's one of the best defenders in the MAAC who was among the league leaders in blocked shots, rebounds, and field goal percentage last year.  Although he spends most of his time in the paint he's also comfortable stepping out and shooting the 3-ball, and he's hit four of seven so far this year in Fairfield's two games.  Similar to Bucknell, they have a guy in Olander who can at least slow Ralph Sampson or Trevor Mbakwe, but unfortunately for them they don't have a second guy.

Their PF, Maurice Barrow, is a good player who made the MAAC All-rookie team last season and is the team's second leading scorer (17ppg) and rebound (5.5rpg) so far this season.  He's also very undersized at just 6-5, 220 lbs and is going to be eaten alive by Mbakwe.  Fairfield only goes six players deep and four of them are guards, so their only other choice for any size is 6-8 freshman Adam Jones who has played a grand total of 12 career minutes.  Despite that lack of size Fairfield still managed to be a very good defensive team last year, finishing 22nd in the nation in overall defensive efficiency

All that being said, despite the fact that Fairfield is the best team in the MAAC it's still the MAAC and they just lost to Providence who has zero shot at making the NCAA Tournament.  That doesn't mean they aren't dangerous, moreso than either of the Gophers' other opponents thus far, but it does mean there's really no reason the Gophers shouldn't win this game.  Not to mention that although Fairfield was an excellent defensive squad last year there one big weakness was allowing offensive rebounds to their opponents with an alarming frequency and their even worse this year, ranking 297th in the country.  So you know what that means.

Minnesota 68, Fairfield 60.

She's bowhunting for Stags.  Get it?

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