Wednesday, January 16, 2008

To Storm The Floor, Gophers Must Slow Gordon, White

With the Gophers men's basketball team firmly on the NCAA bubble, Thursday's nationally televised contest with the highly ranked Indiana Hoosiers is the biggest game at Williams Arena in some time.

A win gives the Gophers a much-needed resume-boosting win and an outside chance to contend for a conference title. The locals clearly know the importance of this game. The game is a virtual sell out, though some obstructed view seats remain. Rabid fans at the GopherHole have discussed waving cell phones at IU coach Kelvin Sampson to raise his ire. That should be fun, and the masses seem ready to lend the maroon and gold rodents a home court edge.

But before there can be any storming of the raised floor in The Barn, the Gophers will have to dispatch of, perhaps, the Big Ten's best team. Leading the Hoosiers is freshman Eric Gordon, arguably the best freshman in the nation and clearly the best offensive player in the conference. Gordon leads the conference in scoring by a wide margin with 23 points per game. And he's shooting nearly 43 percent (not quite Blake Hoffarber-esque) from three point range. Gordon is the real deal, and the Gophers will need to find ways to slow him down.

But Gordon is certainly no one-man show. Senior D.J. White (pictured) is the interior presence to open things up for Gordon. White is fifth in the conference in scoring at 16.6 per game and leads all Big Ten big men in rebounding with more than 10 boards per contest. And White is strikingly efficient, shooting 63 percent from the floor, a number that dwarfs Michigan State's Raymar Morgan who is shooting an equally impressive 56 percent. After seeing what Morgan did to the Gophers, putting up a career high 31 points, White's domination so far this season certainly gives Minnesota fans reason to fret.

But IU's talent goes beyond the two household names. Junior forward Jamarcus Ellis helps out White on the boards. When he has played, sophomore guard Armon Bassett has been able to fill the basket from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Jordan Crawford has also performed well, even if he gets lost in all of the attention showered upon Gordon. And while the list could go on, Minnesota's hopes of beating the Hoosiers will be realized if the Gophers can concoct a game plan that neutralizes White an/or Gordon.

The Gophers' big men have been up and down this season. Dan Coleman has a habit of disappearing against top-notch competition. And Spencer Tollackson, while great thus far in Big Ten play, isn't the kind of big man that can dominate against athletically superior inside talent. The challenge for the Gophers Tuesday night on ESPN is to slow White down in the paint, limit the second-chance opportunities he generates, and most importantly, find a way to establish an offensive presence in the paint. That large task falls on the shoulders of Tollackson and Coleman.

As far as slowing Gordon goes, Illinois' Bruce Weber might have given Tubby Smith a blueprint. The diaper dandy shot just 1-6 from three on Sunday against the Illini and 4-10 from the field altogether. Gordon finished with just 17 points, but even that number could have been much lower had the Illini not sent Gordon to the line 10 times. Weber accomplished this by putting taller, athletic players on Gordon on the perimeter. For the Gophers, this task could fall to Damian Johnson. I'm somewhat hesitant to suggest that because I'm not sure if Johnson's foot speed is up to the task. But if anyone fits the bill for the Gophers, it's Johnson. At 6'4", Gordon would provide a tough match up for Al Nolen, and that would leave Lawrence McKenzie, Kevin Payton or Lawrence Westbrook to defend the IU freshman.

The Gophers have gotten away with playing a significant amount of 2-3 zone, especially in the game at Michigan State. But the Spartans don't shoot extremely well from outside. Indiana does, coming into Thursday as second in the conference from long-range, just behind our Gophers. So, playing Tubby Smith's tenacious ball-line defense seems the way to go against the Hoosiers. And it will be very interesting to see who Tubby charges with the task of slowing Gordon.

And here are a few other keys I see to the IU game.

** Traditionally, IU has struggled at Williams Arena. Kelvin Sampson has never coached at The Barn. Eric Gordon has obviously never played in our gym. The fans need to be in the game from the beginning and make sure the Big Ten takes notice that the days of coming into a quiet Williams Arena are over.

** Blake Hoffarber needs to continue his hot-shooting ways. He's been our version of Chris Kingsbury, and we'll need his offense to open up the inside game.

** Lawrence McKenzie needs to handle the ball well when he's playing point and also look for his shot. It's not an easy combination for McKenzie, but we need both.

** Dan Coleman needs to show why he can play in the NBA. He needs to lead. That means an impressive double-double without getting into foul trouble and an aggressive night offensively. He needs to attack the basket and draw contact, not shy away from it.

** Damian Johnson and Jon Williams need to help hold down the defensive glass.

** Finally, the Gophers need to create turnovers. Since our full-court pressure might not work against the Hoosiers, the Gophers need to get those deflections and interceptions while playing tenacious half-court defense.

Prediction: The Hoosiers were unimpressive in their victory on Sunday at home against Illinois. And I think they are ripe for an upset. This will be the Hoosiers' toughest road test since they lost on a neutral court against Xavier in November. While they are the more talented team, home court means an awful lot in college basketball and compared to the Gophers, the Hoosiers are young. Experience and a raucous home court advantage win the day for Tubby Smith and the Gophers. Gophers by two, 77-75, after which the Williams Arena floor will be filled with students wearing Tubby Time shirts.


Anonymous said...

The cell phone thing is not original. I hope our crowd can carry us to victory, but I'm not as confident as you.

Erik said...

As wonderful as the start of this season has been for the Gophers, I expect this game to be a back-breaker.

Looking into my crystal ball I see that the Gophers will keep it close in the first half and then get blown out in the second half when, much like the Penn St. game, we will get into early foul trouble, and unlike the Penn St. game, we will be unable to overcome it. Final score IU 78 - MN 65.

Here's hoping I'm wrong.

PJS said...

Everyone was predicting losses prior to the PSU game too. Indiana is something like 2-8 in its last 10 in Minneapolis. Much of that has been during the forgettable last decade.

Anonymous said...

From an IU fan, I can say that your analysis is fair and spot on. While our team is more talented, we are inexperienced. With that said, if IU has Armon Bassett for a majority of the game, then IU should win. If not, then we will be in trouble, depending, of course, which Crawford shows up. Nonetheless, it should be a good game.

PJS said...

I don't doubt for a second that IU is the more talented team. But we learned when MSU went to Iowa last week that talent doesn't always win out on the road in the Big Ten.

I think it's fair to say this will be IU's toughest road test since Southern Illinois, and its first true Big Ten road test. And most of the time younger teams take a couple bumps on the road against teams they would ordinarilly beat.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Gophers by 2 - I agree!

lonebadger said...

My my, expectations have certainly risen in Gopher country.

PJS said...

Compared to last year, yes, expectations are rising.

But if the Gophers are a middle of the pack Big Ten team--and I think most agree they can be--then there is no reason they can't beat a top tier Big Ten team at home.

shoes said...

From what I saw at their game at MSU I would say IU is in for a rough night. Tubby is an excellent coach, maybe not such a good recruiter. As for Gordon, I have seen these freshmen phenoms before and most are as advertised but the best way to handle them is not worry about how many points they get just make sure the other four don't explode also.

Anonymous said...

All I want to know is, will Erin Andrews be wearing the road whites or homer gold?

PJS said...

anon, I'm pretty sure EA won't be in attendance. Shame.

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