Northwestern (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) faces a crucial test in its Big Ten home opener, hosting the talented Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-2, 1-1 Big Ten). Richard Pitino’s team navigated its non-conference schedule well, with its only loss coming to Top-25 Florida State in Tallahassee. The Golden Gophers have split their first two conference games, losing in overtime to Michigan State before going on the road to take down Purdue in very impressive fashion.
Inside NU: Through two Big Ten games, Minnesota has been very impressive, taking Michigan State down to the wire and beating Purdue in West Lafayette. What's been the key to the strong start?
Gopher Nation: This team is dramatically improved on the defensive end. Offense is better too, but really defensively is why this team is competing at such a higher level. And it is a number of factors. First and foremost is the addition of Reggie Lynch at center. A transfer from Illinois State, he set a Missouri Valley record for blocked shots by a freshman and was 2nd-team All MVC. He had to sit out last year but has made an immediate impact defensively for the Gophers. Secondly, there is added length and athleticism on the perimeter. Freshman Amir Coffey and grad transfer Akeem Springs have good length and are athletic enough to get to shooters. Dupree McBrayer is also very good in this manner but he was around last year. Lastly is the elimination of a couple guys who were either incredibly slow or completely lost defensively. Add this all up and you have a team that is pretty good at getting to shooters and has a couple guys (Eric Curry is a good shot blocker too) who can clean things up at the rim if the offense gets deep into the lane.
Last year they really had no choice but to resort to a zone, probably more often than man-to-man. Not because they wanted to, but because they just couldn't defend in the half-court man with certain guys on the floor. This year is very different. Top 20 in KenPom defensive efficiency, block % and defensive eFG%. This team won't shut teams down, but they are so much better at making offense difficult for opponents.
INU: The Golden Gophers aren't necessarily young overall, but they are getting contributions from freshmen Amir Coffey (younger brother of NU women’s team star Nia) and Eric Curry. What do both of those guys bring to the table?
GN: I guess they aren't technically all that young, but it does feel like it considering they have one senior who plays at all and all starters return next year. Coffey is really a good player, an all around talent. He has a very high basketball IQ and can affect games in many different ways. Even if he isn't scoring, he is the kind of player who has a big impact on the floor. Curry adds some desperately needed depth in the frontcourt. Last season it was Bakary Konate starting and getting a ton of minutes at center. This season he is the third center coming into the game behind Curry, who also is capable of playing power forward. Both of these guys are playing valuable minutes.
INU: It's still early, but this start has to have Golden Gopher fans buzzing, right? How have the season expectations changed?
GN: Rightly or not, the expectations have gone from maybe being an NIT team to this team really should make the NCAA Tournament. Their non-conference schedule isn't nearly as light as people make it out to be (3rd toughest SOS by KenPom standards). Their resume is looking quite solid at the moment, but of course they need to win several more games in the conference season. The crazy part is...they are in position to take care of business and actually pass the eye-test of being a Tourney team.
INU: Fill in the blank: Minnesota wins if ____.
GN: They get to the free throw line. This is really what they do best on offense. Not a great three-point shooting team, not exactly a "pound the ball inside" team but they penetrate to the lane as well as anybody. They get to the lane where they score and/or get fouled. This team is not a great free throw shooting team (10th in B1G) but they have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted.
INU: Fill in the blank: Northwestern wins if ____.
GN: They shoot well from three. Michigan State made a push and beat Minnesota in the second half when Alvin Ellis got hot from three and opened up the offense. Purdue made their 2nd half run behind P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline who hit a handful of threes. St. Johns had an early lead behind hot outside shooting. If Northwestern can execute an offense, getting open threes and hitting them throughout then I think they will take down the Gophers. I'm not saying they have to be hot and make an absurd amount of threes. But if they shoot at an above average percentage and are able to consistently get open looks, they'll probably win.
INU: Prediction time. Who wins Thursday night?
GN:To be honest I haven't seen Northwestern play for 3 seconds this year yet so I really don't have much of a gauge on this matchup. After the win at Purdue, I think this Gopher team is playing with confidence and I'm starting to buy into them. Based on my bias, I would pick the Gophers to win. But I'm not basing that on much other than I really like how the Gophers are playing right now.