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Three keys for Northwestern against Minnesota

The ‘Cats will be taking on a well-rested Minnesota team that can get some tough wins on its home floor.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

While Northwestern has to play two road games this week, Minnesota is only playing one contest at home. The Golden Gophers will have had a full week off by the time they take the floor on Saturday. They are coming off an impressive 83-74 road win against Penn State. The Nittany Lions had a lead of 16 early in the second half, but Minnesota came back to end their four game losing streak. Dawson Garcia led the team with 22 points while first-year Cam Christie chipped in 17 points and 8 rebounds. Minnesota’s best wins this year are against Nebraska and Maryland; however, it hung in the game at home vs. Wisconsin. This will be an important game for the ‘Cats, especially because of how hard it is to win on the road in the Big Ten.

Here are three keys for Northwestern against Minnesota:

1. Try to control Elijah Hawkins’ distributing skills

While Hawkins averages under 10 points per game (8.5 per contest), he is the engine that makes the Golden Gophers go. Hawkins not only leads the Big Ten with 7.7 assists per game, he leads the country. As a team, Minnesota is fifth in the country in assists per game, averaging 18.6. UMN isn’t a great three-point shooting team, but it is a top-20 two-point percentage unit. Hawkins’ assists generally lead to open layups, lobs or post-up opportunities for Garcia and Pharrel Payne.

Hawkins has great speed, and Northwestern will have to make sure its defenders stay in front of him. With their switching defense, the ‘Cats have to have their head on a swivel whenever Hawkins has the ball. Although he is a dynamic distributor, Hawkins is turnover prone with 2.7 giveaways per contest. Minnesota as a team turns the ball over 12.6 times per game, so Brooks Barnhizer and company will be able to jump passing lanes and steal the ball out of the post trap.

2. Continue to knock down triples

The ‘Cats are a terrific shooting team, converting 38.9% of their three-point attempts. They are second in the Big Ten in percentage. All four of Ty Berry, Ryan Langborg, Boo Buie and Brooks Barnhizer are shooting over 35%. Northwestern averages 8.3 threes made per game which is fourth in the conference.

After having a down year, shooting 29.1% from distance, Berry has responded big time. This year, he’s shooting 44.3% from downtown. In the conference, he’s third in threes per game with 2.4. Last year seems like an outlier year since in Berry’s other three seasons, he’s shot 36.5%, 38.8% and now 44.3% this year. No. 3 had a terrific shooting day against Purdue, converting six of his nine attempts from deep.

By percentage, Langborg is the second-leading marksman from outside. Langborg has shot 39.3% from three this year; however, he’s had a more difficult time knocking down threes on the road. Against Purdue, the Princeton transfer didn’t connect from three on his two attempts, but hopefully he will regain his shooting touch against Minnesota.

This season, Buie is having a career year from three. He’s making 39% of his attempts, greater than his previous best of 36% three years ago. The star guard is fifth in the conference in threes per game with 2.2 per contest. He’s coming off his best three-point shooting game of the season with seven made treys.

Barnhizer doesn’t attempt as many threes as the other three sharpshooters, but he’s capable, nailing 35.4% of his looks. No. 13’s best three-point shooting game this season was against Illinois when he made four of them.

While Minnesota doesn’t have the same offensive firepower as Purdue or Illinois, it will be important for Northwestern to continue their good shooting from downtown.

3. Get off to a quick start and maintain it

Minnesota has had a tendency of trailing early, and it will be important for the ‘Cats to continue that trend. Indiana took a 25-8 lead on the Gophers within the first eight minutes, Michigan State jumped out to a 9-2 advantage three minutes into the game and Wisconsin led 8-2 in the opening four minutes. However, Minnesota hasn’t gone down easily after early deficits. The Golden Gophers cut Indiana’s lead to 28-23 after going on a 15-3 run. Against the Spartans, Minnesota responded and were only down 22-19 nine minutes into the game. Finally, while they were playing the Badgers, Minnesota went on a quick 7-0 run to take a 9-8 lead. They ended up only losing to Wisconsin by two points.

Looking at the entire first half, Minnesota has trailed 39-24 vs. Nebraska and 45-31 against Penn State at the break. However, while facing huge deficits, their team hasn’t folded. The Golden Gophers dominated the second half against the Cornhuskers 52-26, leading to a 76-65 win. In their last game against Penn State, Minnesota outscored the Nittany Lions 52-29 and finished off a 83-74 win.

Even if Northwestern takes an early lead, they can’t become complacent because Minnesota has a variety of weapons. The Golden Gophers have four players who average 10 or more points per game, led by Dawson Garcia who scores 17.5 points per contest. The team also has two capable three-point shooters, Mike Mitchell and Cam Christie, who shoot 43.3% and 39.1% respectively. Northwestern will have to keep its foot on the gas pedal to come out with the win on Saturday afternoon.