Friday, January 11, 2008

Gophers Face Tough Road Test At Penn State

When the national pundits talk about improved teams, it's becoming commonplace that Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers are mentioned. While the Gophers might enjoy basking in some positive attention, the talking heads are ignoring another Big Ten turnaround that's taking place in Happy Valley.

Ed DeChellis' Penn State Nittany Lions entered last season hoping to build off of a 6-10 conference record that included an upset of the Illini (then a top 4 team) on the road. But last year's Nittany Lions fell flat, reverting back to their laughingstock ways with a 2-14 conference record. Flashback to the current season and we see that DeChellis might finally be turning the corner many thought Lions would a year ago.

After a tough stretch to begin the season—that included losses at Rider and Central Florida, and a loss at home against South Carolina—DeChellis' team has beaten Virginia Tech and Seton Hall and has went on the road to claim two Big Ten wins against Illinois and Northwestern. Much like the Gophers, the Nittany Lions (10-4, 2-0) enter Saturday's tilt at the Bryce Jordan Center with a sense of confidence the program hasn't had in quite some time.

The Nittany Lions are led by swingman Geary Claxton (pictured), a 6'5" senior who is averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds per game. Strikingly, in Claxton's last three games, he has been on the floor for 38, 40 and 38 minutes. There is no question that Claxton is a battle-tested senior leader. But he's not the only reason the Nittany Lions are off to a nice 2-0 Big Ten start.

Junior power forward Jamelle Cornley, a thick 6'5" 250 pound specimen, can lead the Lions on the interior and take some scoring pressure off of Claxton. Against Illinois, Cornley went to the free throw line 11 times, an indication he is taking the ball strong to the basket. Freshman newcomer Talor Battle, a 5'11" point guard from Albany, NY, has been steady, leading the team with 3.4 assists per game to 2.4 turnovers. Battle has struggled, however, from beyond the arc, converting on just 14 of his 66 three point attempts.

But while Battle might not be the three point threat, he is bailed out by Claxton, Danny Morrisey and Mike Walker. All three are shooting about 35 percent or higher from beyond the arc. The Gophers' strong perimeter defense should be able to keep these three from doing too much damage.

While Claxton is able to be a nuisance in numerous ways, including on the boards, the Gophers should have an advantage inside. Dan Coleman, Spencer Tollackson, Damian Johnson and Jon WIlliams should be ready to attack the offensive and defensive boards aggressively, like they did against Northwestern. Likewise, the Gophers would benefit from running their offense from the inside out--Bo Ryan style--to assert our dominance in the paint. Claxton and Cornley are nothing to scoff at on the interior, but PSU's inside depth consists of relatively unproven underclassmen.

Keys to the game:

** The Gophers need to contain Claxton on offense and on the boards. He has the ability to single-handedly destroy us ala Raymar Morgan. If the Gophers play man defense, I'd like to see either Dan Coleman or Damian Johnson try to shut him down. If we play our 2-3 zone, the Gophers must know where Claxton is at all times, because he can hurt us on the perimeter and in the paint.

** Create turnovers. When Northwestern came into The Barn, they sported a nice assist to turnover ratio. The Gophers were able to change that. Likewise, the Nittany Lions have done a good job protecting the ball (215 assists to 169 turnovers). Our extended defensive pressure needs to create turnovers.

** The Gophers need to be diverse offensively. Too often this season the Gophers have failed to establish an inside presence. Spencer Tollackson will be the biggest man on the floor and needs to play like it.

** Dan Coleman has disappeared in big games so far this season against quality opponents. He needs to lead the Gophers Saturday. Another double-double performance would go a long way to securing a much-needed road win.

** Al Nolen must play within himself, something he has done for the most part. Talor Battle should be an easier match up than MSU's Kalin Lucas was. Nolen needs to create turnovers and run the offensive efficiently.

** Sid Hartman reported today that Lawrence McKenzie has been bothered by a bum hand. That's the first I've heard of that unless I missed something (Thank you beat reporters). The Gophers can get by against teams like Northwestern without much from LMac, but in hard-fought road contests we'll need him to provide his offensive spark and senior leadership.

PREDICTION: I'm heading to Penn State Saturday morning from my Northern Virginia home and I'm hesitant to jinx my journey. However, I believe the senior leaders on the Gophers know the importance of winning on the road and will come poised and ready to play. I expect Spencer Tollackson to have a nice game on the inside and Al Nolen to take another step forward and win the point guard match up with Battle. Gophers by six, 72-66.

A couple other things: There will not be a Game Day Prep for this game as I'll be on the road early Saturday morning. I probably won't post again until I return from Happy Valley on Sunday morning.

Also, what's up Rick Majerus? At one time the former Utah coach seemed to be a favorite to succeed Dan Monson. But last night Majerus' St. Louis Bilikens put up a ghastly 20 points in a loss to George Washington. 20 points! Seven in the first half! The point total was a record low in the shot clock era. Wow.


alex said...

I'm going to be in the air for this one, but I've got my Tubby Time shirt on and hope to land in Minneapolis to good news.

Mark said...

Had to follow the game via BlackBerry, but what a comeback, and fueled by the freshmen, no less! Yay for Hoffarber and Nolen!

Friend Of Tubby said...

Nice prediction 76-73 (actual) vs 72-66 (yours).

PJS said...

It was a very fun game. I was impressed by the PSU crowd. They were into the game until the intentional foul at the end. The officiating was awful on both sides, I thought. This is the Big Ten. I don't want to see ticky-tack fouls. I'll have complete thoughts up tomorrow.

But this was a very good win. The Gophers didn't play their best, and PSU handed it over, but it was a good win nonetheless.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Did U get to Ercolini's (sp?) if it's still there (in business)???

PJS said...

We did not. We drove in from the south east this morning and winded through the mountains and arrived in Happy Valley around 10, ate breakfast at a diner on College Ave, took a look at the college sports museum at Beaver Stadium, met a few Gopher fans who flew in from Minny who claimed to have "Tubby fever." After the game we were exhausted and crashed for the last few hours.

I'm just getting aroudn to enjoying this Pats game--hopefully a Pats loss!

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