The Minnesota Gophers began the Big Ten season with an 11-1 record and their fans believing that the Gophers could be the surprise dark horse candidate to win the Big Ten.
Expectations among fans for a Big Ten title, however, were tempered with the realization that freshman post player Maurice Walker had torn his posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in one of his knees and was lost for Big Ten play.
Walker was not a huge scoring threat as he was averaging only four points a game, but he was good role player who added much-needed depth to Minnesota’s big tough and rugged front line.
Big Ten title hopes were further dampened when the Gophers stumbled and dropped their first two games in Big Ten conference play with losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Because few teams win in Madison and East Lansing, Minnesota’s losses, while damaging, were not fatal to their Big Ten’s title hopes.
The Gophers then “lost” another player; junior guard Devoe Joseph decided to transfer from Minnesota apparently over a dispute concerning playing time.
Joseph started the season with a six-game suspension but Joseph’s decision was surprising because he had worked himself nicely into the rotation as he was averaging slightly more than 11 points in 25 minutes of playing time at the time of his announcement.
Joseph was a key player last year in securing Minnesota’s NCAA tournament bid as he was one of the few players who could create their own shot in crunch time.
Many pundits wondered who would pick up Joseph’s offensive production and if the chemistry of the team would be affected by his departure.
As expected, Minnesota came out flat in their next game after news of Joseph’s transfer.
Indiana took advantage of the uncertainty among the Gophers by getting off to a 32-26 halftime lead. However, Minnesota went into the locker room and regrouped coming back to win the game 67-63.
Now standing at 1-2 in the Big Ten and facing the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes, Minnesota is in a very precarious position.
If the Gophers lose to the Buckeyes, the Gophers will be three games behind the Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State, and two games behind the Spartans and Badgers.
Any chance of winning the Big Ten title outright will be likely disappear with a loss in Columbus.
If Minnesota wants to win the Big Ten title, they need to go to Columbus and make a statement by handing the Buckeyes their first loss of the season.
In order to upset the Buckeyes, Minnesota will need the following to occur:
5. Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson will need to show up.
Jared Sullinger is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a game which is about the combined output of Sampson and Iverson. The super freshman is likely too aggressive for Sampson and too quick for Iverson; however, Ralph and Colton will need to figure out how to neutralize Sullinger's post presence.
Iverson has scored more than 10 points only twice this season and one of the two games was against South Dakota State. Hopefully Iverson will post a 15-point, 10 rebound effort similar to what he was able to pull off against West Virginia.
4. Trevor Mbakwe will need to create matchup problems and hit his free throws.
Mbakwe, similar to Sullinger, is a force in the low post and will create problems for the Buckeyes. Trevor is too quick for Dallas Lauderdale and he should be too strong for Deshaun Thomas.
Mbakwe, however, has not knocked down his free throws on a consistent basis this season as he is shooting less than 60 percent from the free throw line; coach Thad Matta may employ a strategy of putting Mbakwe on the line and if he does Trevor is going to need to hit his free throws.
3. Neutralize Jon Diebler and David Lighty.
Ohio State’s two seniors Diebler and Lighty have been overlooked by many Big Ten fans given the production of freshmen Buckeyes Sullinger and Thomas. Diebler is one of the best three point shooters in the history of the Big Ten and Lighty is one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten who can step in and take over a game when needed.
The problem for the Gophers is that Lighty and Diebler are taller and bigger than any guard the Gophers can put on them. Rodney Williams may be called upon to match up with Lighty and Diebler to use his height and athleticism to keep Ohio State’s seniors in check.
2. Al Nolen will have to stay out of foul trouble.
Minnesota will need to stay on the floor as much as possible in order for the Gophers to be able to control the tempo of the game and provide tough perimeter defense. Nolen’s perimeter defense will be needed to keep Diebler and Lighty from getting on track. Joseph’s absence will likely be felt most when Nolen goes to the bench this season and today’s game will be first real test challenging the Gophers' depth at guard.
Austin Hollins, one of the three underclassmen backing up Nolen, is the likely beneficiary of extra playing time with Joseph no longer being on the team but the likely reality is that Nolen is going to see more minutes the rest of the season.
Last year, Nolen averaged 25 minutes of playing time; this year he is currently averaging 29 minutes of playing time but that number will likely go over 30 soon provided that he stays out of foul trouble.
1. Blake Hoffarber will need to hit some timely three-point shots.
Hoffarber is currently playing over 33 minutes a game and posting solid offensive numbers with 14 points, five assists and three rebounds. While Hoffarber may be able to increase his offensive production, he can’t make up the entire offensive production of Joseph.
What Hoffarber can do is hit some timely three-point shots. If Blake can hit some deep bombs he should be able to stretch the defense and not allow early double teams in the post when Minnesota sets up its half-court offense.
Additionally, Blake has done a better job taking advantage of defenders running out to him at the three-point line as his assist to turnover ratio is almost 3-to-1.