Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Preview: Northwestern at Minnesota

This might sound silly, considering it's just the second Big Ten game of the year, but Wednesday night's tilt with the lowly Northwestern Wildcats is a must-win for the Golden Gophers men's basketball team.

Consider that the Gophers (10-3, 0-1) will travel to Penn State this weekend to face the surprisingly strong Nittany Lions. After that, the Gophers' schedule gets absolutely brutal, with home games against the league's two top teams (Indiana and Michigan State). Then, the Gophers face another upper-echelon conference team when they travel to Ohio State. For all of the positivity after the 10-2 start, the Gophers could be underdogs in every game after the Northwestern match-up. If the Gophers don't beat Northwestern, they very well could 0-6 in Big Ten play by the time February rolls around.

But that's not going to happen, now is it!

The fact is, the Wildcats (5-6, 0-2) are simply the latest version of putrid purple basketball. Bill Carmody, now in his seventh season in Evanston, has just one winning season on his resume. I expected Carmody, a disciple of former Princeton coach Pete Carril, to have taken strides with the Northwestern program by now, but it simply hasn't been in the cards.

This year's Wildcats were setback in the early going when sophomore Kevin Coble left the team to take care of his ailing mother. In 2006-07, Coble, a 6'8" forward, led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding. He missed the first nine Northwestern games before returning to his team for Big Ten action. Coble is an important figure for the Wildcats because without him, Carmody's squad relies heavily on its guard play. Three guards play heavily into Carmody's plans. Michael Thompson, a 5'10" freshman point guard, leads the Wildcats in minutes, scoring and assists. He's flanked on the perimeter by junior Craig Moore and senior Jason Okrzesik. All three guards are shooting 40 percent and above from the three point line, so the Gophers' perimeter defense, which for the most part has been sound this season, could be tested.

The Gophers should be able to score inside against the Wildcats and hold an advantage on the glass. This should be good news for Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson, who could both use a solid conference game to gain some confidence.

Aside from winning the war in the paint, here is what I are some more pregame thoughts on the Big Ten home opener:

** The Gophers can't look past Northwestern. After the hard-fought, encouraging loss at Michigan State, Tubby Smith's squad can't afford a letdown. Earlier in the season the Gophers might have looked past South Dakota State, and because of it the Jackrabbits were on the verge of stealing one in Williams Arena.

** Al Nolen and Lawrence McKenzie need to make sure the Gophers have solid possessions. In East Lansing, the Gophers went long stretches with less than stellar possessions. Both guards need to make good decisions.

** The Gophers played their best basketball Saturday night when Nolen and McKenzie were on the floor together. With our lack of depth, it is virtually impossible for Tubby to pair Nolen and McKenzie together all of the time. But every minute they are on the floor together benefits the Gophers.

** The second group not including Nolen--Blake Hoffarber, Damian Johnson, Jon Williams and Kevin Payton--need to hold their own when they are on the floor. If Tubby insists on his five-in, five-out strategy to begin games, the second group needs to find ways to score on offense.

** I'm going to watch Hoffarber closely. The freshman sharp-shooter was slightly under his average in minutes at Michigan State and was relatively quiet, scoring just five points while shooting 2-for-2 from the floor. The Gophers are going to need his offense in Big Ten play.

** One area where the Gophers need to be careful all season is foul trouble for our interior players. Against the Spartans, Dan Coleman picked up two quick fouls and found himself on the bench for much of the first half. When Coleman or Tollackson are in foul trouble this season, because of our lack of depth inside, the Gophers are going to struggle.

** I actually always enjoy watching Northwestern because they run a back-door heavy offense. And I imagine Tubby will have the Gophers ready for it. That said, I've seen the Gophers turn their back to the basketball on a few defensive possessions this season. They need to know where their man and the basketball is at all times.

Prediction: The Gophers should have this one handily. I expect the Williams Arena crowd to be the loudest it has been in some time. Tubby Smith and this team deserve that much after the great game in East Lansing. Gophers win 74-59.


Anonymous said...

Using a Northwestern chearleader picture in your game preview is a blatant rip-off of Down with Goldy. For shame.

Mark said...

I'll agree this is a must-win, but I don't think it's a gimme by any stretch. Northwestern has owned the Gophers for two or three years now and even with Tubby replacing Monson, I'm still going to need to see the Gophers win before I get too cocky.

PJS said...

I did use the photo with DWG in mind. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Also, he recently called me a son of a bitch :-)

lonebadger said...

If Tollackson doesn't have a solid game his scholarship should be revoked.

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