Northwestern and Minnesota will face off for the third time this season when the play in the inaugural game of the 2011 Big Ten Tournament.
They will tip-off at 1:30 CST on ESPN2. They split the first two meetings this season—each team winning at home. This will be third time in the last four years, and fifth time overall, that the Gophers and Wildcats will play in the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota has won three of the previous four meetings.
Minnesota played its first game without injured starting point guard Al Nolen. The Gophers were able to exploit their size advantage to post an 81-70 victory.
The Gophers' starting frontcourt of Trevor Mbawke, Ralph Sampson III, and Colton Iverson combined for 47 points and 22 rebounds; and Blake Hoffarber contributed 20 points, three rebounds, and four assists.
NU’s big three of Michael Thompson, John Shurna, and Drew Crawford combined for 49 in the loss.
Minnesota improved to 16-4 with that win against Northwestern. The season would spiral out of control from there. The Gophers finished the season losing nine of their last ten to finish 17-13.
The teams’ second meeting in Evanston was last Wednesday.
It was Northwestern’s regular season finale. Northwestern was able to turn around a six-point halftime deficit with a 15-2 run early in the second half to pull away for a 68-57 victory. Mbakwe was the only Gopher to reach double figures.
Four Wildcats finished in double figures, including Michael Thompson playing in his last regular season home game at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern’s 10 made three-point shots to the Gophers' 2-17 from beyond the arc proved to be the difference.
Northwestern has been at its best this season—when they are able to push the ball.
When the Wildcats score 70 or more, they are 15-1. NU is only 2-11 when they have failed to reach that mark. After leading the Big Ten in scoring a season ago, Northwestern finished third in the conference this season, shooting 38.1 percent on three-point shots.
Northwestern has relied heavily this season on their big three of Senior Michael Thompson, Junior John Shurna, and Sophomore Drew Crawford. They combine for 61 percent of the Wildcats scoring, 52 percent of the assists, and over 70 percent of the three-point shots.
When all three are playing well, Northwestern is difficult to defend. Shurna and Thompson earned spots on the Big Ten All-Tournament team earlier this week.
Shooting the three is a big part of the NU offense. Northwestern led the Big Ten this season in three-point shots, both made and attempted.
NU’s bench provided a huge lift in their meeting with Minnesota last week. Center Davide Curletti and Guard Alex Marcotulio combined for 30 points in the victory.
Freshman Guard Jershon Cobb is expected to miss his third straight game with a hip injury, and Shurna still wears a walking boot when he is not on the court—according to the Chicago Sun Times.
Rebounding and defense have been a struggle for NU all season.
Their minus 6.7 rebounding margin in conference games ranks last in the conference. They were able to overcome a 32-27 deficit on the boards in their victory over the Golden Gophers last season. NU was last in field goal percentage defense, and seventh in three-point field goal percentage defense.
Getting Blake Hoffarber on track will be a key for the Gophers. He's had only nine games this season shooting 50 percent or better. All of his shooting percentages have dropped from last season. Hoffarber shot five of ten from the field, made all eight of his free throws, and connected on two of five on threes—finishing with 20 points in victory.
In the Gophers' loss in Evanston, Hoffarber was only two of nine from the floor, and finished with five points.
Trevor Mbawke has had an outstanding first season for Tubby Smith. He averages 13.7 PPG and 10.4 RPG and has 18 double-doubles. He led the Big Ten in rebounding, and Mbakwe was awarded second team All-Conference after his outstanding season.
Minnesota has had a disappointing season. At the time of Nolen’s injury, the Gophers were 16-4 and ranked No. 16 in the country. They have never completely recovered.
At 10.2 PPG, Sampson is the only other Gopher in double figures. He also averages 5.2 RPG and 2.4 BPG.
If the game gets into a shooting contest, the Gophers will likely struggle. They shot only 32 percent on three-point attempts, and they also finished last from the free throw line.
Defensively, Minnesota will have a big edge on the Wildcats.
The Golden Gophers led the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense, blocked shots, and rebounding margin. It will be a battle of one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten against one of its best shooting teams.
What’s on the Line?
Northwestern should be safe in receiving an NIT bid. A win could provide them with a big boost in seeding, and possibly give them a home game.
Minnesota should be safe, but if they lose to Northwestern it would be their tenth loss in their last eleven games. That could give the NIT committee reason to doubt how well the Golden Gophers would play in the NIT.
The winner advances to the quarterfinals to play top-ranked and number one seed Ohio State at 11am CST Friday on ESPN.