The Minnesota Gophers face the two most difficult weeks of their Big Ten season. If they can win two of their next three games they will be in a very good position to claim a share of the Big Ten title.
If they can win their next three games, the Gophers may be on their way to winning their first Big Ten Championship since 1982.
The season has been somewhat of a roller-coaster ride for the Gophers.
Minnesota stormed out to a 4-0 record. The fourth victory was an impressive 82-73 win, over the then 10th ranked Butler Bulldogs. The Gophers were ranked as high as the 16th ranked team in the nation and life was very good in Minneapolis.
Then the Gophers went on a three game losing streak dropping games against Portland, Texas A &M, and Miami in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. While the Pilots, Aggies and Hurricanes have spent time among the Top 25 teams in the country the losses were humbling because the Gophers showed a lack of consistent hustle and toughness on defense.
Minnesota then came back home for five non-conference games to get themselves back on the right track. The home cooking agreed with the team.
The Gophers did not just win all five non-conference games, they destroyed their opponents.
The only non-conference game which Minnesota did not win by more than 30 points was their 20 point victory over St. Josephs which they won 94-74. The only non-conference game that Minnesota did not score more than 90 points was when Minnesota only scored 89 against Northern Illinois.
Blake Hoffarber had found his stroke from downtown leading the Gophers in scoring in four out of the five games. Against Northern Illinois, Hoffarber set a new school from beyond the arc when he went 8-for-10 against the Huskies.
The defense which failed to find the best scorer on the opposing team in the team’s three losses all of sudden was playing suffocating defense and not allowing any open shots.
Some wondered if Minnesota would become over confident once the Big Ten season started and have a relapse similar to what occurred when the Gophers played Portland.
Portland’s deep three threat, T.J. Campbell torched the Gophers for 23 points hitting four from beyond the arc. What would happen when All Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Talor Battle and the Penn State Nittany Lions came to the Barn to open the season?
The box score would suggest that Minnesota had a tough game as the final score was 75-70. The 23 points tallied by Battle on five of eight shooting from beyond the arc would suggest that the Gophers failed to identify their opponent’s best scorer.
Neither proposition is true.
The Gophers were in control of the Penn State for most of the second half. The Nittany Lions were able to make the game closer than the score would indicate by hitting several three point shots coupled with the Gophers hitting only one of two shots within the last minute of the game.
Battle had a terrific game but several of his three point shots were well beyond the arc. Not the college arc, but several feet from beyond the pro basketball three point line.
No player in the Big Ten has the shooting range of Battle. Talor hit two of his three pointers from at least twenty-eight feet from the basket.
Minnesota harassed Battle; he just simply did a good job shooting the ball. The Gophers will know next time that once Battle crosses the half court line, he is willing to launch.
The road trip to Iowa was a beat down of the Hawkeyes by the Gophers. The final score of 86-74 does not reflect how well Minnesota stifled Iowa from the opening tip.
The young Hawkeye was trapped everywhere on the court and as result turned over the ball 18 times in the first half. Minnesota led by 17 points at half-time but easily could have led by more than 30 points had they not turned the ball over themselves.
Of course, the Gophers turnovers were mostly unforced errors. For example on one trip, Al Nolen dished to a wide open Damian Johnson who travelled coming down the lane on his way to a thunderous dunk.
Johnson could be excused for believing that he was in a dunk contest given how the Hawkeyes surrendered the lane to him.
The next two weeks will be much more difficult and will likely tell the story for the Gophers and their aspirations for a Big Ten Championship. Minnesota plays the three teams that most analysts, including myself, picked to win the Big Ten Title
The Gophers play No. 4 ranked Purdue tomorrow in West Lafayette. On Saturday, they come play Ohio State at home. On Wednesday they will be in East Lansing to take on the defending Big Ten champion No. 11 ranked Michigan State Spartans.
Purdue is unbeaten and has the look of a Final Four team. Purdue’s January 1 victory over the No. 6 ranked and previously unbeaten West Virginia 77-62 was impressive.
In order to beat Purdue, Minnesota will need to limit their turnovers as the Boilermakers can apply as much or more defensive pressure than the Gophers. Purdue’s Chris Kramer was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and JaJuan Johnson was a member of the All Big Ten Defensive Team.
Minnesota will also need to have Guards Blake Hoffarber, Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph knock down three point shots to keep Purdue honest on the perimeter. A big game from Joseph would be especially timely as he has recently struggled finding his range.
On the defensive end, Minnesota must not allow the Boilermakers any second chance opportunities. If Ralph Sampson, III ankle injury is not better, Colton Iverson will need to avoid picking up earlier cheap fouls battling Purdue’s Center E’Twaun Moore.
The injury to Ohio State’s star player Evan Turner has clearly hurt the Buckeyes as they dropped their first two Big Ten games to Wisconsin and Michigan. Ohio State will undoubtedly come to Williams Arena hungry to get back on track and the Gophers must not let up their guard against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State has a solid dynamic duo in David Lighty and Jon Diebler who are both averaging 15 points a game. Either player could carry the Buckeyes in Turner’s absence.
If Minnesota applies the same level of defensive pressure as they exerted against Iowa and they win the battle of the boards with the Buckeyes, Minnesota should be in a good position to send the Buckeyes back to Columbus with a loss.
There will be no rest for the weary as Minnesota’s next opponent is the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. The Spartans destroyed the Northwestern Wildcats 91-70 in Evanston to begin Big Ten play.
The recipe for beating the Spartans is similar to the Purdue recipe with a dash of stopping the dribble penetration of point guard Kalin Lucas and limiting transition baskets.
Michigan State Coach Izzo has been quoted as saying that the way to win the Big Ten title is to beat your opponents on the road and to hold your own at home. Hard to disagree with Coach Izzo.
If the Gophers can beat either the Boilermakers or Spartans on the road while holding court against the Buckeyes they will take a nice step forward in the conference race. A sweep against the preseason favorites in the conference with road victories over Purdue and Michigan State would put Minnesota in the driver’s seat.
The Big Ten race won’t be over in the next two weeks no matter what happens as there will still be 13 more games left to play.
However, Coach Tubby Smith and his Gophers would appreciate running from the front of the pack as opposed to running with the pack. Hopefully, the Gophers will be able to see the possibility of a Big Ten Championship in their sights in two weeks.