Meh, we move on. I'm not surprised the Gophers lost at Nebraska, but I am a little disappointed that the team seemed to be sleep walking for much of the game. That's not something I though would happen at all this year, but they definitely came out a bit flat. They also went away from the game plan of trying to pound the ball inside despite Mo Walker playing well again, but I suppose that can happen when your point guard turns the ball over 9 times. I mean, that's how many times Ferris Bueller was absent in his final high school semester - it's a lot. The main problem, however, was once again defense, with Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchfork just shredding the Gophers. Disappointing, but not terribly damaging to post season aspirations. I'm mostly bummed that amazing performance by Malik Smith (called by me, see Twitter) was wasted. I said he'd probably win a game single-handedly for the Gophers this year, and that might have been supposed to be it. Shame.
Next up is Northwestern, and luckily it's at home so I both feel good about the Gophers' chances and also we don't have to look at that hideous purple crayon court. Not all that long ago this would have been the kind of game where you break out the snuggly and get some hot cocoa, because Northwestern was a complete dumpster fire. Home losses to Illinois State and DePaul, non-competitive games against good teams, their best win of the season was either over Brown (NERDS!) or Western Michigan, and an offense that was currently ranked as the worst BCS conference offense in history according to kenpom.com's efficiency rating. It was a nightmare.
Now? Well the offense is still terrible (320th in the country) and in conference play has been even worse with the Wildcats (more like Mildcats, right?) only scoring 0.85 points per possession which ranks dead last in the conference, but the results in the win/loss column have been surprisingly good. Home wins over Illinois and Purdue and road wins at Indiana and Wisconsin have Northwestern sitting at 4-5 and sixth in the conference. Right now they're half a game behind a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. This is ludicrous. Chris Collins must be some kind of really short wizard, right? Well kind of.
Obviously if your offense is putrid like a dead anaconda Ice Cube blew up you have to be winning with your defense, right? Right, and Collins has turned a group of mostly questionable athletes used to playing a passive zone into a group that plays an absolute shut down man-to-man. In their conference wins they've allowed 43, 47, 60 (in 2OTs), and 56 points. It works, and it's also a very safe style of play. They don't put any pressure on the ball, so they don't cause turnovers, they send everyone to the defensive glass so they don't allow many offensive rebounds but don't get many fast breaks themselves either, and they send everybody back after a shot so they don't get their own offensive rebounds but limit their opponents transition opportunities. They play extremely fundamentally sound defense (NERDS!), and by not taking any chances they make the offense execute in the half court to score. If this sounds a little scary considering Dre Hollins is still out and DeAndre Mathieu is coming off a nine turnover game, it should.
Not to harp on that defense, but they're really, really good. Big Ten opponents have made just 29.7% of their three point attempts against them and 43.9% of their two pointers, and their effective field goal percentage against of 44.1% is tops in the Big Ten and would be #23 nationally over the entire season. Those numbers reflect how the Wildcats are almost always in correct position which means few easy shots allowed. They sacrifice creating steals and turnovers in exchange for always being in a shooter's face by never, ever taking chances (Cobb will occasionally but it's rare), and it's really a genius style of play for an undermanned squad in both the athletic and talent department. Watching them is like watching an instructional video. Yes, I've been very impressed by them. So what? No, I don't want to marry them. Leave me alone.
Offensively Northwestern is pretty terrible but so is the Gopher defense so I'm shrugging my shoulders right now. Drew Crawford is in his 8th season and with him showing no ill effects from his injury last year he's pretty much the same guy you remember and the top offensive threat for the Cats. He's their highest usage player and also their most efficient, and is one of the few guys in the conference who excels at driving to the hoop but can hit the 3 as well, although his percentage is pretty shitty this year (32%). The only other scary guy on the team is Tre Demps, simply because the man loves to shoot despite hitting just 39% this year (which is actually a career high - true story). Hes' the most likely Wildcat to do the Sam Cassell Big Balls dance at some point, simply because he'll do something like play a bad game and then hit a gigantic three pointer right when they need it or make a super fancy pass for a lay-up or something. He's a scary man cuz he just don't care.
The rest of the team is whatever and probably really smart (NERDS!). Jershon Cobb is actually the team's second leading scorer and should probably be scarier than he is but he's basically just a mediocre jump shooter. Alex Olah is big and tall and takes up lots of space and sometimes makes lay-ups. Dave Sobolewski has been injured and who knows if he'll play, but it's probably good for the Gophers if he does since he's a turnover machine shooting 25% from the floor this year. Sanjay Lumpkin mainly flails around and solves physics proofs in his head, Kale Abrahamson likes to throw the ball at the rim from far away and has a weird name, and their only real back-up big man, Nikola Cerina, actually looks like he's angry at his teammate anytime somebody passes him the ball. And there's the guy with that jewish hat thing.
Seriously though, even if I'm not really scared of Northwestern's offense their defense can play well enough where they don't have to score very many points, and Crawford and Demps and if somebody else gets hot can definitely score just enough, especially against a pretty poor defensive team like the Gophers.
Minnesota will have to play smart and work the ball inside in the half court and take every advantage to run if any present themselves. This is a game the Gophers could win by 20, but they could lose by 20 just as easily if they aren't careful. Since I'm still counting myself as an optimist this year, I'm gonna say they get it done.
Minnesota 68, Northwestern 55.
[EDIT: I somehow completely forgot to mention that Northwestern cannot figure out a press, at least without Sobolewski. Gophers need to add more trapping to their press on Saturday.]