The no. 11 seeded Golden Gophers are going send senior Trevor Mbakwe—their hulking strongman power forward and the Big Ten's leading rebounder at 8.7 a game—into the post like some angry, bellowing water buffalo to harass UCLA's finesse front line.
Overall, the man-to-man test is going to come in the post with David and Travis Wear, Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker—who Ben Howland said was going to play at least 10 minutes in his first tournament game—called on to answer the challenge.
Where it is not Mbakwe devouring rebounds, it will be Rodney Williams, a long-limbed 6'7'' senior forward and an explosive, controlled leaper, creating match up problems for a UCLA team without an athlete to match his ability and size.
The Gophers have also used Elliot Eliason this season—a 6'11'' sophomore center—around 13 minutes a game. He may see more minutes against UCLA, a team that on its soft days has been overpowered by big post players working close to the rim.
The Gophers are the best offensive rebounding team in the rugged Big Ten at 14.9 a game, and the best team in terms of rebounding margin at plus-8.9. UCLA has had their struggles trying to cap defensive stops with defensive rebounds, surrendering commodity quantities of second and third chance points at various points during the season.
Defensively, Williams and Mbakwe are third and fourth in conference in blocks per game. To off-set that advantage, UCLA will have to leverage the intelligence of their basketball players—and most of them as a rule are savvy—to try and put the Gophers into foul trouble, taking players off the floor and manufacturing points in the bonus.
The Gophers will also platoon a deep line of guards with the two Hollins, Andre and Austin, along with Joe Coleman and Julian Welch. Andre and Austin are the team's top two scorers at 13.9 and 10.6 points per game, just ahead of Williams and Mbakwe at 10.3 and 10, respectively.
UCLA should be able to counter the guards with Larry Drew II, Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell playing heavy minutes. Since it is the tournament, there is nothing to save your players for, and these three are going to have to be ready to run in heavy rotations for close to 40 minutes against the Golden Gophers.
In certain knee-jerk circles of bracketology, this has already become a trendy upset game with the Gophers getting the better of the Bruins in a bad match-up scenario for UCLA. But this is an eminently winnable game for UCLA.
The Gophers could be a sleeper sultan of the South Bracket, but their inconsistency over the season has been impossible to explain. There is no denying the Gophers have gone soft over the last month and a half, with a 5-11 record in their last 16 and bad losses to Nebraska and Purdue before a first round exit from the conference tournament.
Minnesota can claim three really good wins on the year, over top ranked Indiana on Feb. 26 in Minneapolis, 77-74; over Wisconsin on Feb. 26; and earlier in Dec. over Michigan State. They can claim one respectable road win in a Jan. 9, 84-67 victory over Illinois.
As for the rest of the season, they are 3-5 against the RPI Top 25 and 5-8 overall against the top 50.
The Gophers have an enormous proclivity to commit turnovers and have a margin of minus-1.03 on the season. UCLA will badly miss the services of Jordan Adams here, the Pac-12's leading pilfer man with 2.2 a game. Between Drew II, Anderson and Powell the Bruins are still good for nearly four steals a game.
In addition to that, UCLA takes good care of the ball with a top five assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.46.
This game will be a tight, brutal battle from wire-to-wire, but UCLA has the personnel to beat the Gophers if they come to the arena with the calm nerve to perform in the do or die conditions. If they escape out of the first round, the Bruins will likely find an old foe waiting for them in the second.