Northwestern hits the road tonight to take on Minnesota at Williams Arena (aka The Barn.) Tip-off is at 8 PM central, and the game will be on the Big Ten Network with Dave Revsine and Bob Ford on the call.
Minnesota is 12-7 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten. During non-conference play, they beat Butler on a neutral court, but canceled that out by losing the next night to Portland. They also lost to Texas A&M and Miami out of conference, while going 8-0 in 8 home games against soft mid-majors. In Big Ten play the Gophers got a marquee win over Ohio State (with Evan Turner) at home, but also suffered a questionable loss at Indiana. They come into tonight having lost 3 in a row, with the Indiana loss sandwiched between losses to Michigan State. The most recent loss to the Spartans came Saturday at home, as Minnesota blew a double digit second half lead and lost by 1.
The strength of Minnesota's team (like most Tubby Smith coached teams) is definitely their defense, as the Gophers rank in the top 10 nationally in steals, blocked shots, and turnovers forced. Expect to see a lot of full court pressure tonight, and in the half court look for the same kind of aggressive man-to-man defense that Purdue played. Their top defender is 6'7" senior forward Damian Johnson, the only player in the country who ranks in the top 30 nationally in both steals and blocked shots. Johnson will likely be guarding John Shurna, who will certainly have his hands full.
Point guard Al Nolen was the top perimeter defender for Minnesota, but he won't play tonight as he's academically ineligible. He'll be replaced in the lineup by Devoe Joseph, who has been playing well the last two games. He had 19 points against Indiana and 16 points and 7 assists against Michigan State. Joseph is an athletic slasher and will be tough to guard off the dribble.
The two other Minnesota guards are both very dangerous shooters, in Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook. Hoffarber shoots a Big Ten leading 48% on 3-pointers, and Westbrook isn't far behind at 42%. While Hoffarber is mainly a 3-point specialist, Westbrook can also score off the dribble, as most of his attempts come from inside the arc. He shoots at 55% on 2-pointers, a very high percentage for a 6'0" guard.
At center, Minnesota rotates between Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. Both are big bodies who rebound and block shots well.
Minnesota had been using a 9 to 10 man rotation, but with Nolen out Tubby Smith has shortened his rotation. Paul Carter was the only bench player other than Iverson to see significant minutes last time out against Michigan State. The Gophers do have several more solid backups available though, including Devron Bostick, Rodney Williams, and Justin Cobbs.
Some keys to the game for Northwestern:
Match Minnesota's intensity early: Minnesota will be angry after three straight losses and they should come out flying, much like Purdue did against NU after losing 2 straight. The 'Cats were able to stay in it against Purdue despite some early turnovers, and they'll need to do the same tonight and keep Minnesota from running away with the game in the opening minutes.
Slow down the pace of the game: Minnesota is at their best in an up-tempo game, forcing turnovers with their press and getting baskets in transition. Since Minnesota has much better athleticism and much more depth than Northwestern, the 'Cats will have very little chance in a fast-paced game. When forced to play a half-court game, the Gophers can struggle particularly on the offensive end. You can easily see this by looking at their game by game results; Minnesota is 12-2 when at least one team gets to 70 points, and 0-5 when both teams are held under 70.
Keep Michael Thompson out of foul trouble: Thompson needs to be on the floor at all times, as without him the 'Cats will get eaten alive by Minnesota's full court pressure. If Alex Marcotullio or Nick Fruendt have to handle the ball in the back court, that may force the Big Ten Network run a Parental Discretion Advised warning as the abuse those two will take won't be appropriate television for children under 13.
Get hot from 3-point range: In their only Big Ten road win of the season, 3-point shooting was a big key for Northwestern, as they hit 11 of 24 to win at Michigan. They'll need that kind of outside shooting tonight as it is tough to score inside against Minnesota due to their excellent shot blocking. Of course I said the same thing before the Purdue game and the 'Cats attempted a season low 11 threes and instead mostly scored inside, so what do I know?
Minnesota is a 12 point favorite in this game, the most points Northwestern has gotten all season. While Minnesota is certainly tough at home, that line is a bit inflated mostly because the Gophers fare very well in the computer rankings that Vegas uses as a general guidelinefor spreads. Sagarin's predictor* has them 18th in the nation and Pomeroy's has them 21st (while NU ranks 74th and 71st respectively). Computers love Minnesota because of their large margin of victory, as the Gophers have won by an average of 25 points per game in their 12 wins, while losing by only 5.8 per game in their 7 losses. Northwestern on the other hand has lost 5 games by an average of 14 points a game, while in their 14 wins their margin of victory has been just 12 per game. Thankfully for Northwestern, the NCAA selection committee doesn't really care about margin of victory.
The committee does care a lot about being able to beat good teams on the road however, so tonight's game is very important for Northwestern. Minnesota is right there along with Northwestern and Illinois in competing for the 5th at large spot out of the Big Ten, and a win tonight would clearly establish the 'Cats as the #5 team in the conference and give them a much needed win over a good team. While there is a decent chance Northwestern gets blown out tonight like their 27 point loss last season at Williams Arena, I think Northwestern will keep this one close. Unfortunately, I can't pick them to win.
Minnesota 72, Northwestern 63
I think Northwestern hangs around for most of the game, but Minnesota is playing at home and badly needs a win, so I think they pull away late and start to turn their season around. I really hope I'm wrong. Stick around tonight for the game thread, and look below the jump if you care to hear a further explanation of Sagarin's rankings (which you probably don't)
*Minnesota ranks way ahead of NU in the predictor that is used for spreads. In his rankings based on solely on wins and losses while ignoring margin of victory (called ELO_CHESS), NU ranks much higher than Minnesota (46th to 82nd). Sagarin's overall rankings are an average of the two, in which Minnesota ranks slightly ahead of NU (54th to 57th). As you may have gathered from the name, the predictor does a better job of predicting future results, which is why it is used as a guideline for point spreads.