Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Purdue

Last time the Gophers played Purdue they dominated for about 30 minutes or so.  Then Purdue realized - wait, we really suck at this jump shooting thing, we should totally attack the rim using dribble penetration and then the Boilers almost won.  So this one is pretty scary, given that as uneven a game coach as Matt Painter is he most likely understands what happened last time out.

Since we last saw Purdue, they went on a little 3-game win streak (home vs. Nebraska and Penn State, road vs. Illinois) but have now lost their last four including road losses to PSU and Northwestern, and they're currently sitting as the only Big 10 team with an RPI outside the top 100 (107, BAD LOSS ALERT).  They're a horrendous shooting team, better only than Northwestern, and outside of A.J. Hammons the whole team kind of blends together in a homogenous mixture of mediocrity.  Their top two guards are practically identical players in Ronnie Johnson and Terone Johnson, with Terone a little more perimeter based and Ronnie more inside the 3-point line, but they do a lot of the same things, with Ronnie the point and Terone the 2 guard.  These were the two who shredded the Gophers for 12 and 18, mostly by driving in the second half - Ronnie was nearly unstoppable.  As such, I'm hoping the Gophers pack that zone in deep and force Purdue to beat them from the outside.

Because, you see, they probably can't.  If you recall the first game, the first 3 quarters of the game consisted of Purdue hanging on the perimeter and hoisting - and mainly missing - three pointers.  As a team they shoot just 28.9% from three in conference play, ranking 10th in the conference.  You wan them shooting from out there.  Ronnie Johnson doesn't shoot much, but Terone can fall into chucker mode and he hits a mediocre 37%.  The two three point specialists, wings Sterling Carter and Kendall Stephens, shoot 25% and 36%.  The rest of the guards are more drivers than they are jump shooters, and packing in the zone helps eliminate those opportunities.

Packing in the zone is a good idea for another good reason, and that's the monster that is A.J. Hammons.  Bad news for the Gophers is he's big (7-foot), strong (251 lbs), and can take over a game on either end (averaging 17 pts and 10 rebs in his last two games and leading the conference at 3 blocks per game).  The good news for the Gophers is that Hammons can disappear from games.  In nine Big Ten games he has three where he's attempted four shots or fewer and three where's he's grabbed 3 rebounds or fewer (both of these happened against the Gophers last time).  He's also had five games with double digit shot attempts and five with 8+ rebounds.  I can't seem to find any rhyme or reason to his disappearances either.  The three games where he didn't shoot much were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Penn State and his three poor rebounding games were against Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.  He's been a monster the last two games, but whether through his own apathy, a good defensive scheme, or the Purdue guards not looking his way he can be taken out of the game.

Playing the zone sagging back into the lane works here too.  Hammons is deadly around the rim, hitting over 80% of his field goal attempts, but the majority of his shots are jumpers (60%).  He is a pretty good jump shooter, hitting 37% from out there, but if the Gophers can push him out to the high post they'll have a much better chance of winning.  I'd rather have him taking jumpers than camping by the basket, especially because, if all goes according to plan, the Boilermakers will be missing a lot of long jumpers and I would strongly prefer to have him nowhere near the rim.  A packed-in zone can work against Purdue, but if they start hitting threes early and the Gophers have to extend out, that opens them up to dribble penetration which they've proven they can't stop and it could end up being a very long day.  The first 8 minutes are going to be very telling on Wednesday.

Defensively, Purdue is pretty much a man-to-man team which is good because the Gophers are much better facing man defenses than zones, in my opinion.  This way they can go to their stock plays using the pick-and-roll to create the action.  Using Eliason or Walker as the screener and pulling Hammons away from the rim is probably the way to go here, considering he blocks 14.1% of his opponents shot attempts when he's on the floor (5th in the nation).  Two big keys are going to be Mathieu's floater/jumper and PF post-ups (cringe).

Matheiu has been great this year scoring at the rim against taller players, but that's not going to fly against a shot blocker like Hammons so he'll have to pull up and hit that free throw line jumper he has.  He's been pretty accurate on that shot this year so I feel good about this one.  I'm not thrilled with posting up either King or Osenieks, but when Jay Simpson isn't in the game for Purdue (and he only averages 12 minutes per game) they don't have any real size outside of Hammons unless they put in Travis Carroll (7.7 mpg) who isn't a defensive wizard.  Since Eliason or Walker posting up on Hammons is dicey (but will need to be tried several times) using the Gophers' other big on the block is an option.  King/Osenieks will need to be able to score on a smaller player or find an open teammate if Hammons comes over to help.  This has the potential to be very frustrating.

Although this isn't a must win game, it's definitely a please god win this one please game.  If Purdue is nailing threes the Gophers are going to lose.  If Hammons is fully engaged on both ends of the floor the Gophers are going to lose.  If Minnesota doesn't execute really well on offense the Gophers are going to lose.  Too many ways to lose.  Let the free fall continue.

Purdue 66, Minnesota 60.

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