UPDATE: The game has just finished and the Gophers lost 67-64, despite a late surge. The No. 2 Buckeyes are now 16-0, while the Gophers fall to 12-4.
PRE-GAME BLOG POST:
Columbus, Ohio - Sure, Seattle beat New Orleans in the NFC playoffs. And it's been a weekend of upsets throughout college basketball. Penn State over Michigan State? Really.
But it will be tough for the Gophers (12-3, 1-2 Big Ten) to Marshawn Lynch their way to a victory over the undefeated Buckeyes (15-0, 2-0 Big Ten) when the two teams meet Sunday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio.
Here are five questions related to the matchup:
Can the Gophers beat the Buckeyes?
Yes, they can. This Buckeyes squad might be getting a little bored with its success. Their 73-68 win over Iowa last week was their first single-digit margin of victory this year.
In that win, the Hawkeyes cut a 13-point edge to three points in the closing seconds. The Buckeyes were outrebounded 34-30. Ohio State played lazy defense early and entered the second half with a deficit.
I think the Buckeyes are as good as any team in the country. But they're starting to show signs of overconfidence. The "we can always run off 16 straight points if we need to" attitude isn't a good one in a tough conference.
The Gophers have the size to frustrate Jared Sullinger. And they whipped the Buckeyes in Minneapolis last season without Trevor Mbakwe. Blake Hoffarber had a career-high 27 points.
Plus, the Gophers enter this game with a sense of desperation that the Buckeyes can't comprehend. They don't want to leave with a 1-3 record in Big Ten play with a matchup against Purdue Thursday.
If the Gophers put pressure on Sullinger and he struggles, then a supporting cast of perimeter players will have to pick up the slack. The Buckeyes, however, haven't been in that situation this season because Sullinger has played so well.
But the Gophers have only recorded a victory once at Ohio State (60-56 OT, Jan. 19, 2005) in their last 10 tries.
Why don't the Gophers shoot more threes?
Well, Blake Hoffarber is the only true three-point shooter on this team right now. Devoe Joseph is gone. And Austin Hollins, who looked like a possible sharpshooter early in the season, has struggled in recent games.
So it's all on Hoffarber. And that's a major problem for this team. He's 7 for 15 from beyond the arc in three Big Ten games. The Gophers have hit 12 threes since the start of Big Ten play, the lowest tally in the league.
As a team, they're shooting 30 percent from the three point line, the worst mark in the Big Ten.
A year ago, they were the best three-point shooting team in the conference (40.5 percent). They averaged 6.8 treys per game, third in the Big Ten.
But they don't have as many shooters this year. So a team like Ohio State that plays a lot of zone can put David Lighty on Hoffarber, Minnesota's leading scorer, in a man to man setup since he's the only real threat from outside. That could disrupt the Gophers offense.
In the nonconference season, three-point D was the big issue. But their three conference opponents shot a combined 35.3 percent from beyond the arc, second in the conference.
The Gophers have to find a way to connect from the perimeter. If they don't, they'll continue to struggle, especially against talented teams like the Buckeyes.
Which loss hurts more? Mo Walker or Devoe Joseph?
I think Minnesota's so-so offense needs Joseph's scoring. He forced a lot of shots, but he ended up with 11.3 points per game. And this team is still searching for someone to help it make up for that loss on offense.
But against a team like Ohio State and next week against Purdue, they'll miss Walker more.
He's a big body who could have helped this squad defend inside forces like Sullinger and JaJuan Johnson. And he's five fouls. The big men will have their hands full against Sullinger Sunday. More depth inside could be the difference in a game like this.
Should the Gophers be more concerned about Sullinger or Ohio State's perimeter players?
It's definitely "pick you poison" against the Buckeyes. Even if the Gophers shut Sullinger down, they'll have to deal with opposing talent on the perimeter. David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford all average double figures. Diebler is shooting 51.1 percent from beyond the arc. Buford's a pro. Lighty's a tough defender.
Still, the scheme goes through Sullinger. If he's challenged, it will affect the way his teammates compete.
Who will lead the Gophers?
Prior to Minnesota's loss at Michigan State, a bunch of folks who follow this team started a debate about leadership. Some identified Trevor Mbakwe as the leader of this team. Others pegged Blake Hoffarber. We all agreed, however, that it should be Al Nolen.
More than ever, the Gophers need Nolen to lead on and off the floor. They need him to be vocal and keep this squad calm in tough games. During the Puerto Rico Tipoff, he steadied the ship. But that foot injury kept him off the floor for five games. In Tuesday's win over Indiana, however, he looked comfortable playing that role again. He recorded 14 points, four steals, four assists and six rebounds, one of the best overall performances of his career.
With Joseph's sudden departure, the Gophers need a player to keep them focused. It's a long season. The Gophers have the talent to finish strong. But they can't let some of the distractions affect them. And they can't come to a place like Columbus and play flat. They need energy and intensity. Nolen sets the tone.
Prediction: This looks like a very good Ohio State team. The Buckeyes haven't encountered a lot of challenges this season, but that's not their fault. It's Ohio State and everybody else in the Big Ten right now. Plus, they've lost once over the last two seasons at Value City Arena, where no opponent has scored more than 64 points this season.
Ohio State 77, Gophers 64 (I'm 13-2 this season.)