Friday, January 25, 2008

Gophers Look To End Skid In Columbus

When Minnesota and Ohio State meet in Columbus Saturday night, it will be a match up of two teams with very similar resumes.

Both teams have beaten foes they were supposed to beat and both teams have lost to superior competitors. The Gophers' losses have come on the road against Florida State, Michigan State and UNLV--nothing to be ashamed of losing in those environments--and at home against highly ranked Indiana and Michigan State. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' losses have come against ranked opponents North Carolina, Butler, Texas A&M, Michigan State and Tennessee. The Buckeyes (13-6, 4-2) have also lost at Purdue.

The closest thing Ohio State has to a marquee win is home-win against the very down Florida Gators. The Gophers? I'm not sure we can consider a win at Penn State to be of the quality variety.

So, when the two teams meet at 7 p.m. central time on the Big Ten Network, both teams will be looking to assert themselves as one of the best middle-of-the-pack teams in the conference.

The Buckeyes are one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten. They lead the conference in field goal defense and three point defense. The Buckeyes are holding opponents to 37 percent shooting from the floor and just 29 percent from beyond the arc. One of Minnesota's strengths is three-point shooting (37 percent for second in the conference), but that advantage has been somewhat lessened when the Gophers have faced teams that can apply consistent pressure on the perimeter.

Ohio State also presents specific match up problems. Seven-foot freshman Kosta Koufos has been up and down during the season, but his size and athleticism presents a tough task for Minnesota's senior center Spencer Tollackson. Tollackson has the size to play with Koufos, but not the agility. Likewise, Minnesota forward Dan Coleman has the athleticism to play with Koufos but not the thickness.

But Koufos hasn't been the force on the glass he might eventually turn out to be. And that's good for the Gophers, because we saw how Michigan State (a very good rebounding team) can thoroughly embarrass Minnesota on the glass. In fact, the Buckeyes have had similar problems in the rebounding department. Aside from Koufos and senior forward Othello Hunter, the Buckeyes are equally as vulnerable on the boards.

The Buckeyes are led by senior floor commander Jamar Butler, a 6'1" Ohio product who has improved his game each year in Columbus. Using Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats, we can see that Butler is extremely efficient on offense (a rating of 122.2, a very good number for a team's workhorse) and has an assist rating that ranks in the top 30 nationally. He's not the type of guard Minnesota's pressure defense will bother. Butler has 117 assists on the year and only 44 turnovers.

Butler, Koufos and company will be coming into this game with something to prove. They've dropped three of four, having lost to Purdue, Michigan State and Tennessee in the last two weeks before beating Illinois at home Tuesday. Minnesota has a skid of its own to end, having lost two straight at Williams Arena.

To upset the Buckeyes on their floor, the Gophers will need Lawrence McKenzie to play the way he did down the stretch against Michigan State Sunday. That means he needs to put this team on his back offensively. Reports indicate Al Nolen will be available, and that's very good news for the Gophers who looked lost without the freshman in the back court Sunday.

Some keys for Minnesota:

** Control the glass. If the Gophers are even on the boards, this is a good sign.

** Force Butler and the OSU back court into turnovers. Minnesota is second in the conference in turnover margin. Ohio State is eighth.

** Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson need to be aggressive and take the ball to the basket. Coleman specifically needs to be aggressive and draw fouls. If they can get Koufos in foul trouble, our chances will increase.

** Control the tempo. Against quality teams the Buckeyes are playing in the mid-to-high 60s. If the Gophers are able to shoot well, it will be a good sign if the game is played in the 70s.

** Rebounding in the zone. The Buckeyes don't shoot extraordinarily well from three, so I anticipate Tubby Smith will play some 2-3 zone. The Gophers need to find men to box out if this is the case.

** Finally, consistency. The Gophers haven't played an entire game of good basketball all season. We can't win on the road against a good, if not great, opponent by playing inconsistent basketball. This means the Gophers need to limit turnovers, take quality shots (no threes please Spencer) and make good decisions in transition.

Prediction: Ohio State gets the edge with the game being in their gym. If the Gophers have a chance, they'll need to shoot much better than Ohio State's defense typically allows. But I don't think that happens. Pick: Ohio State 69, Minnesota 63.

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