The 16th-ranked Gophers (15-4, 4-3 Big Ten) face Northwestern (13-6, 3-5 Big Ten) Wednesday night without their starting point guard. Al Nolen is out with a broken right foot.

Here are five questions related to the Northwestern-Gophers matchup: 

1. Will the Gophers make the Big Dance without  Al Nolen? 


They went 3-1 after dropping their first two Big Ten matchups in part because of Nolen's production on offense and defense. But they might not have him for the rest of the season, a huge blow for this team.

High-level play from their three freshmen - Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi - would help the Gophers regroup without their floor leader. But they still have more talent than most teams in this league with Blake Hoffarber, Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams.

With their size inside and Hoffarber's scoring outside, they're capable of beating most of their remaining Big Ten opponents.

They're No.22 in the RPI and they have the No. 41 strength of schedule, both helpful for their NCAA tourney hopes.

And the Gophers have played the toughest portion of their schedule.

If they beat Northwestern, Indiana (road), Iowa (road), Penn State (road), Michigan, Northwestern (road) and Penn State and lose the rest of their regular season games, they'll finish 11-7 in Big Ten play. I'm not saying they will, but they can achieve that record without beating the Big Ten's top tier teams.

With nonconference wins over North Carolina (No. 20 RPI) and West Virginia (No. 16 RPI) and a Big Ten victory over Purdue (No. 11 RPI), they have a solid resume for the NCAA tournament at this point.

But with just eight scholarship players and Nolen on the bench, there's no guarantee that they'll get through some of the squads in the bottom half of this league. They had rough stretches in their wins over Iowa, Indiana and Michigan. And they might need a quality win against another top-tier opponent to guarantee a bid.

They'll have opportunities to add good wins to their record in the Big Ten tourney.

And there's a chance that Nolen will return at the end of the year. (Nolen told me Tuesday that even if he comes back this season, there will be a "high risk" of re-injury.)

If the Gophers can avoid a major collapse, they could still get into the Big Dance. And they have veteran leaders who can help them achieve that goal.

2. How will the Gophers change on defense without Nolen?

By losing Nolen, they're missing a player who'd provided solid offense over the last three weeks. And it changes everything they do on defense.

Tubby Smith said he expects to play more zone with Nolen unavailable. The Gophers have improved their three-point defense during conference play. But they're more vulnerable on the perimeter without Nolen.

Plus, this is a league with a lot of talented guards.

Every Big Ten squad has a playmaker on the perimeter. For the last three-plus years, it's been Nolen's job to stop those guys. Who will play that role now?

3. How will Wednesday's game affect the rest of the season?

This could be the most important game of the year.

Hoffarber playing point, potentially for a long stretch. How comfortable will he look? Ahanmisi, Armelin and Hollins logging more minutes. How will they respond? 

Northwestern is talented. If the Gophers can win Wednesday, they'll have the confidence that they can excel without Nolen.

A loss might create the opposite effect.

4. Who has to step up? 


But all eyes are on Rodney Williams. He's played OK in conference. He hit clutch shots at Michigan Saturday.

The athleticism and ability are there. Now, we're all waiting to see if he'll step up his production and consistency.

5. What will be the toughest task for the Gophers Wednesday? 

The Gophers have to get through Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone, a problem for most Big Ten teams. Accurate passing and good ballhandling will be the keys. But the Gophers also have the athleticism to run the floor and force the Wildcats to play more honest. That's how they neutralized Michigan's zone in the second half.

But how will freshmen react to the defensive pressure? That's the most significant question for this matchup.

Prediction: Northwestern 62, Minnesota 59 (I'm 17-2 this season)






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Tubby Smith: Al Nolen broke his foot Saturday, will have surgery

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