You mean I have to write this preview already? It feels like the Illinois game just ended. And man, what a game. The Gophers defense is absolutely ridiculous. I've never seen a team handle their rotations so well, and even Joe Coleman is looking semi-competent on that end. That defense creates so many opportunities to run, whether through turnovers or missed shots, and with the athletes they have it plays right into their strengths. Even in the half-court they're playing incredibly efficient and finding open opportunities, and with five guys who can score 20+ in any given night opposing defenses can't key on any one player or in any one area. The bench is a bit of a concern, but like Snacks pointed out to me it's really not THAT bad, it's just that the starters are so good that when the reserves are in it makes them look worse. The Gophers have gotten really strong stretches from Welch, Ahanmisi, Ingram, Oto, and Elliason this year, and when Tubby goes with that lineup they've been able to keep the margin close to what it was when they came in, giving Tubby the chance to rest the good players so they can play all or nearly all of the second half. This is awesome.
But, as the way this season goes, as long as I'd like to dwell in the happiness of this win over Illinois we move on and now face a top 5 ranked team in the country and the preseason favorite (according to Vegas) to win the whole thing in the Indiana Hoosiers.
The Hoosiers come in at 14-1, with the lone loss coming in overtime against Butler in Indianapolis in a game that went to overtime. The most interesting thing to me about those 14 wins is that they may not have a single win over an NCAA Tournament team yet. NDSU is one of the favorites to win the Summit, but not the clear favorite. Georgetown is a bubble team at best who's 0-2 in the Big East, North Carolina is heading straight for the NIT, and Iowa is going to have to pull off some major upsets (pleasegodno) to make it. Everyone else has been a creampuff.
I bring that up not to say Indiana is overrated - far from it. They've played incredibly well this year, ranking 6th in overall offense and 7th in overall defense at kenpom.com, one of only three teams (along with Duke and Florida) to rank in the top 10 in both. While the Gophers also fair extremely well in those ratings (10th & 14th) they have a couple of glaring weaknesses (turnovers and allowing offensive rebounds) while in comparison Indiana is above average in literally every single metric measured. They're an extremely good shooting team who can also put the clamps down defensively, they rebound well on both ends of the court, and they get to the line often while not putting their opponents there. They don't depend on the three-pointer but hit it with regularly when they're left open, move the ball well, and like the Gophers, have five guys who can go for 20+ on any given night and can hurt defenses in a variety of different ways. In short, this isn't Illinois or even Michigan State, this is a legit national title favorite (top 3-4 for me). It isn't going to be easy.
I don't even know where to start when it comes to individual players because there's so much, so let's just get to it.
Cody Zeller could win National Player of the Year and he'd deserve it. He's got great moves around the rim and can score with either hand going either direction and has a decent jumper out to about 15. He blocks a decent amount of shots due to his height but isn't an exceptional athlete although he's no slouch there either and can run the floor very well. He's added some strength this year but if he has a weakness it's his physicality. The best thing that could happen for the Gophers would be to have Mbakwe go right after him and knock him around on both ends of the floor, hoping they refs let a lot go, beat him up, and take him off his game. Will that work? I don't know, but it's what I'd try.
Next to Zeller is Christian Watford, who creates an interesting match-up with Rodney Williams because they're both kind of tweeners, but with different skill sets. While Williams puts up his numbers with his incredible athleticism, Watford is the exact opposite in that he gets his numbers (and the two have very similar numbers) despite being known as somewhat unathletic due to fundamentals and positioning and other nerdy things like that. The other big difference is while Rodney is a questionable (at best) jump shooter, Watford is a dead-eye from 3. The other knock on Watford is that he can lose focus and kind of tune out the game, and the Gophers best chance is for Rodney to frustrate him on the offensive end and hope he tunes out a bit and doesn't crash the offensive boards the way he usually can.
The third guy I want to point out is swingman Victor Oladipo, who might be the second best athlete in the conference (behind Rodney). Also like Rodney, when he came into college ball he was basically an athlete who played basketball, but has since morphed into a more complete player, and Oladipo is a rich man's Williams because he is a more efficient version than Williams with a good jump shot. I mean, dude, the guy is shooting 67% from the floor and 48% from three while averaging similar point and rebound per game numbers to Williams. The Gopher defense is going to have to be just as tight against Indiana as it was against Illinois because if Oladipo gets the ball with just a speck of daylight to the rim he's going to explode after it. Hopefully somebody can draw a charge or two.
Those are your three main cogs, but there's plenty of other talent here as well. Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell form kind of a tandem point guard duo - Hulls the steady veteran who takes care of the ball and is a great (and very smart) shooter (hits 52% from the field and three despite being a perimeter guy), and Ferrell the exciting (5.1 assists per game) freshman who is a little wild and can't hit the broad side of a barn when he shoots (32% from the floor, 24% from three). The compliment each other extremely well and both are excellent defenders, if a bit undersized. It may work to have the Gopher guards (Coleman, both Hollinses) post them up. I'm not sure what kind of post game the Gopher guards have, but given their size/strength advantage I'd love to see them try.
Lastly, the Hoosiers have a pretty talented and deep bench led by Will Sheehey who is their fourth leading scorer and a damn good athlete in his own right and also is kind of a dick. Remy Abell, Jeremy Hollowell, Derek Elston, and the recently reinstated Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Austin Etherington were all highly regarded recruits and round out the Hoosier bench with a cast that's probably better than Iowa.
Breaking it down, I really don't see any clear advantages for the Gophers. Their best bet is to play their game - tough defense, taking advantage of transition opportunities, and crashing the offensive glass - and hope a few things go their way. Hope the Gophers' physical play can intimidate and render Zeller and Watford ineffective. Hope they can play well enough to shut down Oladipo, and that they can push Indiana out of the lane and get them to settle for the same bad shots Illinois was taking (and hope Hulls doesn't hit them anyway). Hope the Gophers can stay out of foul trouble, because even though their bench is good, Indiana's is great. If anything is a weakness for the Hoosiers it's that they haven't faced a team as good as the Gophers yet, where the Gophers have already played Duke. For Indiana, Georgetown is probably as physical but isn't as skilled, while Butler is as skilled as the Gophers but isn't nearly as physical. North Carolina and Iowa both try to score in transition the way the Gophers do, but neither are on Minnesota's level.
In reality, Indiana is a X.X point favorite for a reason, and while the Gophers can probably make a real game of it at home trying to overcome Indiana's advantage at Assembly Hall (and Big Ten ref's propensity for playing to the crowd) is likely too big a task. A close game ending with a 5-8 point Indiana win is the likely outcome.
I remember a game back in 1997. A game where a ranked Gopher team went into Assembly Hall to face a higher ranked Indiana team. Things looked bleak. The Hoosiers looked to control the game as time wound down, and it looked like another good Gopher team would just be good. Then there was a three-pointer. A steal. And then Bobby Jackson hit a three from the corner and we were headed to overtime, where the Gophers ground out a 5-point victory. And they were off. Next stop, Final Four and the best Gopher team of my lifetime. Well, maybe until now.
Minnesota 80, Indiana 76 (in OT).