The Gophers are seeded 11th in the NCAA Tournament this week, which was a good break because the sixth seeds as a group are fairly week and pretty vulnerable. Even better, the Gophers couldn't have secured a better match-up than UCLA, which is why, despite all their warts and their limping into the tournament, the Gophers actually find themselves a 3-point favorite.
The biggest issue for UCLA is with an injury, as freshman swingman Jordan Adams, the team's second leading scorer, broke his foot in the Pac-12 tournament semi-final win over Arizona and will miss the remainder of the season (the Bruins then lost in the championship to Oregon by 9). With transfers of some key pieces to begin the year (both Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb bugged out) the Bruins now have just seven players who appeared in more than five games this year. Considering UCLA is an up-tempo team (35th fastest team in D-I) who knows how this affects their game plan, and if there is any foul trouble at all they could be in bad shape quickly.
Also putting them in bad shape? They have absolutely nobody who can guard Trevor Mbakwe. I mean nobody. Their two big men, David and Travis Wear, and neither athletic nor particularly strong. They are finesse bigs, kind of like a really poor man's Cody Zeller, and if you recall Mbakwe had a double-double in both games against Indiana including a 21-12 at Williams where he destroyed Zeller. The Wears do have a couple of inches on him, but I don't expect that to matter. The only other option Ben Howland will have is bringing freshman Tony Parker off the bench, but Parker is raw, fat (6-9, 275 lbs.), and Howland clearly doesn't trust him (averaged just 6 minutes per game and he's played a grand total of 14 minutes in their last six games). Parker may have the strength to at least both Mbakwe a little bit, but in the athleticism department he gets blown away. Another possibility is 6-8 freshman Kyle Anderson, but he's more of a perimeter player (despite averaging 8.6 rebs per game he's not a "on the block" kind of guy). They literally have no other options.
I'm going to stop right here and say this again. UCLA HAS NOBODY WHO CAN GUARD TREVOR MBAKWE. They don't. The Gophers need to feed him the ball. Over and over and over. He should touch the ball in or near the paint on every single possession he's in the game. It's that simple. It should become clear quickly they'll have to double him, and then it will come down to if the Gophers can make open shots. Either than or UCLA will switch to zone, in which case the Gophers offensive rebounding should kill them because the Bruins are a horrible rebounding team. If the Gophers make Mbakwe the focal point of their offense on Friday they should win this game.
I could stop right here, but I want to type more.
First, I don't trust Tubby and/or the players to get Mbakwe the ball on every possession. I'm hoping for the best, but wouldn't be shocked to see him with 4 field goal attempts again. Well, actually he should have more than that because he should end up with 5-8 offensive rebounds himself, but you know what I mean.
Secondly, UCLA has maybe the best individual player in this tournament in Shabazz Muhammad, and that's always a bit terrifying (ask Duke re: Derrick Williams). Sometimes a player like this can get so hot, so dialed in, that nothing a defense can do can stop them and they can carry their team to victory after victory. Muhammad is that kind of talent. He can score inside, he can score outside. He can drive to the paint, he can hit the jumper. If he's fully engaged he's a handful - but therein lies the rub for UCLA.
There have plenty of articles I've seen asking if Muhammad already has one foot out the door to the NBA and pretty much announced he was one and done before recruiting even got serious. Howland already announced he was leaving after this year, and the vibes coming out of Westwood it just feels like everybody's ready to pack-up and move on. From the issues that came out last year with Howland and Reeves Nelson, overall team discipline issues, and several transfers it just feels like everybody is ready to be done and move on (note: sounds like Howland is likely gone, which really creates extra competition for Shaka Smart if the Gophers move in that direction). With a kid who has had "NBA lock" written all over him for years it's not surprising Muhammad has mailed it in a few times this year (double digits rebounds just 3 times this year, 20+ points just once in his last 6 games, one steal in the last 4 combined, the game when he shot 11 three-pointers despite making just two). Who knows what UCLA gets out of him? I read he seemed more intense during the Pac-12 Tournament so maybe they get a fully focused Muhammad, but maybe not.
Outside of Muhammad the offense basically breaks down into North Carolina cast-off Larry Drew (yes, he transferred but the Heel fans were happy to see him go) breaking down his man off the dribble and creating opportunities for the other Bruins (Kyle Anderson, both Wears, and Norman Powell are all decent jump shooters even if none are even mediocre three-point threats). Drew isn't much of a scorer himself but he does do well getting into the lane to set-up others. Outside of not letting Muhammad go off (this is a wonderful test for Rodney Williams to prove his draft worthiness if he gets that call, FYI, although personally I think Austin Hollins is probably a better play) having Dre Hollins be able to handle Drew 1-on-1 is the #1 defensive key to the game.
Let's face it - this game sets up perfectly for the Gophers. What's their #1 strength? Rebounding. What's UCLA's #1 weakness? Rebounding. What's the Gophers #1 weakness? Guarding against the 3 and half-court offense. UCLA? Don't shoot the three at all (and their #1 guy was Adams) and try to run-and-gun which should give the Gophers plenty of transition opportunities. The Bruins #1 strength? They don't turn the ball over, but the Gophers don't rely on turnovers anyway (and they create their additional opportunities from offensive rebounds). Think the "vibe" around this team is off? It's even worse at UCLA where Howland's dismissal slip is probably already half-filled out and most of the players are sick of him (I don't think the Gophers and Tubby have reached this stage yet).
The scariest thing about this game for the Gophers is how perfectly it sets up for the Gophers. As a life long Minnesota sports fan I know that's when things usually go wrong, and yet, as a life long Minnesota sports fan I keep getting sucked back in. I'm buying.
Gophers 73, UCLA 66. Round 2: Gophers 60, Florida 88.