by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The best conference in the country is the Big Ten. That’s not a debate so much as a point of fact. Michigan and Indiana are riding one-seed trajectories. Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota can beat any team in the country in the right circumstance. And the rest of the league (save Nebraska and Penn State) will fight you for 40 minutes every night. Winning on the road in conference play will be an absolute grind. Case in point: Illinois, whose three-point-oriented offense failed at Mackey Arena against a defensively-grounded Boilermakers team that, for all its roster turnover and talent shortcomings, will get after you defensively and rode its infectious home crowd and physical intensity to an upset victory. The Illini were favored to win that game for a simple reason: they are a better team than Purdue and on a neutral court, they win that game seven or eight times out of ten.
Northwestern is not a better team than Minnesota. In fact, this is the best team Tubby Smith has ever coached in Minneapolis. It has explosive scoring guards (Andre Hollins), a ball-hawking defense and a sixth-year big man (Trevor Mbakwe) playing the best hoop of his career. Much like Thursday night’s Michigan game, Northwestern is overmatched.
Three Players To Watch
Andre Hollins (sophomore, guard)
You’re not going to find a more lethal combination of offensive dynamism and athleticism than Trey Burke. I, you and anyone who watched a minute sample size of Thursday night’s game know better than to argue that. Let’s get something clear: Hollins is not Trey Burke. Minnesota’s lead guard is not as quick, strong or intelligent. None of which should make you think he will be an easy cover for Dave Sobolewski or whatever guard is forced to face him up on the defensive end.
You know better. You watched last year’s Big Ten Tournament, when Hollins smoked the Wildcats with 25 points in their first round matchup to crush Northwestern’s at-large hopes. Hollins has elevated his game on multiple levels this year, and he’s only starting to come into his own. He can really score the ball, and he can do so efficiently, which is not something you could say about Hollins for much of last season. His biggest area of improvement: passing. Hollins is creating scoring opportunities for teammates on 26.3 percent of possessions. No teammate using at least 20 percent of possessions comes within 12 percent of that mark. Hollins scores, he dishes and he makes this offense go like no one else can.
Rodney Williams (senior, forward)
There are good dunkers, and then there’s Williams. He is as athletic as they come in the Big Ten, and he adds a great bit of skill to go along with that bouncy explosiveness. Williams gives Minnesota a perimeter slasher, a big, strong, creative individual who can dash by defenders, attack defenses at the seams and finish at the rim. Williams is not a particularly gifted long-range scorer, but that’s not a hindrance to his offensive repertoire. He allocates his shot attempts in high-yield transactions: 51 percent of Williams’ field goal attempts come at the rim (according to hoop-math.com).
So you won’t find Williams spotting up from long-range. That’s just not his game. He’s more likely to break down Northwestern’s defense with slicing dribble penetration, where he can either a) swing passes to open perimeter shooters b) drop a slick bounce pass to Mbakwe on the low block or c) sky to the rim and finish with a huge slam. He’s not quite as refined an offensive product as Hollins, but Williams is probably Minnesota’s most highly rated NBA prospect. Once he gets in the open floor, man, Williams is special.
Trevor Mbakwe (senior, forward)
Priority number one for Northwestern Sunday will be keeping Minnesota off the glass. The Gophers hoard their own misses at the highest rate in the country (48.7 percent), and no player is more critical to that defining metric than Mbakwe, who has been one of the best rebounders in the country to date but does his best work on the offensive end (his 18.0 offensive rebounding percentage is seventh best in the country). Coach Tubby Smith has gradually ramped up Mbakwe’s minutes over the course of his long recovery from offseason knee surgery. After a nine-day layoff following a home win over Lafayette, Mbakwe logged a season-high 28 minutes against Michigan State. Either Smith pushed Mbakwe in the heat of a crucial Big Ten game, or Mbakwe’s knee has healed to the point where he can handle a larger workload. I tend to believe the latter.
When at full-strength – and if he’s not at full-strength, he’s close – Mbakwe is an absolute force. He dominates the boards, outworks defenders, protects the rim and exercises a forceful rule over the low block. Enter the paint at your own risk, because Mbakwe, despite his 6’8’’, 245-pound frame, will make your stay an uncomfortable one. It’s not that he fouls or resorts to cheap tactics. Mbakwe is an incubator of activity and spryness; he never stops going. Never is this more true than in rebounding, where he combines textbook box-out fundamentals with an relentless motor and tireless work ethic. He’s overcome multiple knee surgeries and a host of disciplinary issues to finish his college career with a flourish. And so far, he’s on the right track.
Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. Mbakwe
It’s hard not to be impressed with Olah’s progress since the beginning of the season. He’s long since moved past the inexplicably poor high-post decision-making, the wildly-contrived hook shots, the feeble rebounding efforts. Olah is a real big man now, and he’s improving by the game. He was one of the few positives in the Michigan beatdown. Not only did Olah work for optimal post position on a number of possessions, he created quality shots off that physical jostling. He’s also improved his scoring touch and ability to shake defenders for cleaner looks.
I don’t doubt Olah’s scoring prospects against Minnesota’s front line. What concerns me is his ability to rebound against the likes of Mbakwe, who is a freakishly skilled and crafty glass-cleaning veteran that would scare some of the best big men in the country. His dominance could come as an even bigger challenge for someone as inexperienced and, at times, unassertive as Olah. The Baylor game gave Olah a reflective taste of NBA athleticism, but Mbakwe is a different beast. It’s not as much his athleticism as it is his strength and energy that makes Mbakwe such a difficult matchup on the glass.
If Mbakwe can generate second-chance points for he and his teammates, Northwestern simply can’t keep up. The Wildcats need to get stops, and they need to rebound when they get those stops. No one has been able to deny Minnesota offensive rebounds, and especially not Mbakwe. If Olah can fight him to collect the Gophers’ missed shots, and snag a few boards on the offensive end along the way, the Wildcats have a chance. In a game like this, on the road in a quirky arena against one of the Big Ten’s two or three best teams, that’s all you can ask for.