Hey. Still in Utah. Ended up computer-less for the last two days due to circumstances you don't really care about. But with the Battle 4 Atlantis kicking off tomorrow I might as well do a quick little preview on the teams, starting with Duke since we know that's who the Gophers play in Round 1.
The Blue Devils are always good, but are generally at their best when they share the ball and have a wealth of scoring option rather than a single player who dominates the ball - which is how this team is constructed this year.
Center Mason Plumlee and wing Seth Curry are the two main pieces for the Dukies. Plumlee leads Duke in both scoring (21.7 per game) and rebounding (8.7) and has been extremely efficient this year hitting from the floor at a 77% clip. Obviously that's unsustainable, and according to what I've read about Plumlee he's pretty much been converting dunks and lay-ups and doesn't look to make any kind of actual post move very often. He's not particularly athletic or strong, so if Mbakwe is back to where he was last year he should be able to destroy him in the paint, and there's a non-zero possibility that he literally kills Plumlee with a dunk in his face. The way I think of it, and I apologize for this extremely nerdy analogy, is if you're playing chess and suddenly your opponent has his queen in your space and you know you're going to get destroyed, you just hope to hold on and minimize the damage. That's Mbakwe in this game because Plumlee is really the only post player Duke has and he can't handle Mbakwe. In fact, if I'm Coach K I figure out who Mbakwe is guarding (most likely Plumlee) and feed him the ball as often as possible after telling him his job is to draw fouls. I can see Mbakwe being so amped up for this game that he won't be able to settle down and two quick fouls is a very real, and very bad, possibility for the Gophers.
Curry, the brother of all-time chucker Stephen Curry, has a bit of chucker in him (he leads Duke in shot attempts) but plays more under control in Duke's system than his brother did. Between he and Rasheed Sulaimon the Gopher guards are going to have their hands full. Both can score inside or out and both hit 40% or better from three this season, and Sulaimon is a big-time distributor, averaging 3.7 assists and a total of 11 versus just 4 turnovers - great numbers for a freshman at the beginning of his career. Add in the mid-range game of Ryan Kelly (40% 3-pt shooter last year) and his ability to find the open man (2.7 assists per game this year for a 6-11 player) and if the Gophers try to play zone this game is already over.
The key for Minnesota will be in their defense, shooting, and taking care of the ball. That sounds like every game I know, but it's especially meaningful in this match-up. Duke has won (the three wins: Georgia State, Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast) by being an extremely efficient shooting team, whether due to shot selection, dead-eye accuracy, or a little of both. They shoot 38.4% from 3 this year (67th in the country) and 55.5% from two (33rd), and when combined that makes them the 28th best shooting team in the country. On the flip side, the Gophers are #1 in the country in opponent's effective field goal percentage, holding teams to 19.1% from three (#9) and 32.7% from two (3rd). That will likely be the main difference in the game.
The Gophers have big-time opportunities here in offensive rebounding and three-point shooting. Duke is not a particularly good defensive rebounding team where the Gophers excel at crashing the offensive glass, and Duke really struggles to defend the three (opponents shoot 40.8% behind the arc, 313th in the country). The Gophers aren't a great shooting team behind the line but they aren't terrible either, the key will be in knocking down those opportunities for open looks that Duke will definitely give up. The other watch-out for the Gophers is taking care of the ball. Duke plays a swarming man-to-man that causes a lot of turnovers, something that has been a major struggle for Minnesota so far this year. If this ends up being a blow-out in Duke's favor this will be the reason why.
All-in-all, the Gophers have an excellent opportunity here to grab a big-time win. Their strengths have a chance to either neutralize Duke's strengths or exploit a Blue Devil weakness. The game should be a good one, and Kenpom.com calls it a 1-point Dukie victory. If the Gophers can take care of the ball, knock down open shots, control the paint, and limit Duke's three-point shooting they can win this game. To me, that's just too much to ask. Not to mention if the Gophers end up in a close game or have a small lead Coach K could coach circles around Tubby Smith, and no matter how well the Gophers play I don't know that they can overcome that advantage.
Duke 70, Minnesota 64.
In game 2 the Gophers will face either Memphis or VCU. Memphis is currently ranked in the high teens while VCU is just behind the Gophers in "others receiving votes", and although the Tigers would clearly be the higher profile win since they're considered a Final Four contender a win over either would go a long way in March.
Memphis has started slowly, winning both of their games so far but by just 15 or 11 against extremely poor competition (North Florida and Samford). They're not a very good shooting team and that's continued this season (just 29.4% from 3), and rely more on their guards slashing and getting into the paint through penetration - and they're very good at it. Joe Jackson, Antonio Barton, and Chris Crawford are a very good three guard lineup, but one the Gophers should be able to match-up with pretty well with the Hollins brothers. The issue lies with that third guard because Joe Coleman is absolutely brutal defensively and Julian Welch isn't quick enough. Memphis only has one true post player in Tarik Black who Mbakwe should be able to handle on his own, so I'd expect the Gophers to use Rodney on one of the guards and hope they can muster enough help defense so they don't get destroyed down low by Adonis Thomas. I don't like this match-up for the Gophers and I wouldn't expect them to win this game.
VCU, on the other hand, is a game Minnesota has to have if they want a good seed in March, particularly if they meet the Rams in the losers' bracket. That's not to say VCU is bad - you'd have to be a fool to overlook a Shaka Smart team at this point and the Rams should end up hovering around the top 25 all season - it's just that if the Gophers are the team I hope and think they can be this is a game they'll win.
VCU does return four starters from last year's team who won a game in the NCAA Tournament and their style makes me very nervous. VCU plays an attacking style of defense designed to force steals - and it works (VCU led the nation in steals last season with a mark that was the highest of the last four years). With all the guards the Gophers have on paper they should be able to handle this, but on paper they're also turning the ball over this year at a rate that's one of the worst in the country. When the Rams have the ball Minnesota should be able to handle them. Although they're a very athletic and balanced team they rely on those steals to key their offense. If Minnesota takes care of the basketball they should win - although that's a very big if.
Game three will come against one of Louisville, Northern Iowa, Missouri, or Stanford. I'd guess it'll be Louisville in the Championship, Missouri in the third place game, Stanford for consolation, and Northern Iowa in the worst case scenario.
Louisville is my pick for National Champ and they play an absolutely suffocating defense. They've crushed all three opponents this year by at least 26 points and although the competition has been poor their play is what you'd expect in those situations. While the Gophers play great shot defense and VCU creates a ton of turnovers the Cardinals do both. Their only real weakness is they aren't a great shooting team, but I don't think that would matter. I don't think the Gophers would have a prayer and would be lucky to get to 50 points. If they end up playing Louisville it's a success because it likely means they won two games already.
Missouri would be another extremely touch match-up for the Gophers simply because of their speed and back-court strength. They're very similar to VCU in style of play and personnel, with both teams playing a pressing, attacking style but not necessarily pushing tempo on offense. I would be pretty excited for this match-up, simply because I'd love to watch Andre Hollins go up against Phil Pressey, who I think is the best point guard in the NCAA. Actually, what I'd really love is for Hollins to just sit and watch tape of Pressey and absorb it, but somehow I think getting schooled by him might do it better. Best case? Hollins holds his own and is better than expected. Worst case? He learns and gets better. Win-win? Yes, I agree that's a pretty generous "worst case" but it's my blog so STFU.
If they end up playing Stanford or Northern Iowa something has gone wrong, although say, losing to Duke and then beating VCU wouldn't necessarily qualify as a disaster, but in any case they have absolutely got to beat either of these squads if they match-up. Stanford, the nerds who beat the Gophers in the NIT last year, have been dreadful this year and are one of the worst shooting teams in the country which you wouldn't expect from a bunch of nerds who should know geometry and angles and stuff. Maybe they aren't real smart kids but fake smart kids like when Doug was hired to be a lawyer on King of Queens just because he was good at softball. Northwestern should take notes. But anyway these dorks just lost to Belmont.
Northern Iowa, long removed from the great days of Ali Faroukmanesh, doesn't necessarily have a blemish on their record, but one of their wins was over a non D-I team and another took overtime to beat Toledo. Despite that level of competition they simply refuse to cause turnovers which means the one way to really beat the Gophers if you're worse than them is something the Panthers don't do. To lose this game would be a travesty like Super Bowl XL or Fletch 2.
Here are your acceptable outcomes:
1. Win the whole thing
2. Win the first two
3. Beat Duke (the next two don't matter if you get that one)
4. Win consolation
That's it. That means the Gophers, at a minimum, need to win two games or beat Duke in the first game. Anything else would be a failure. I don't like failure.