Read my story in today's Star Tribune about the difference between the Gophers at home and the Gophers on the road -- looking at the offensive rebounding, points in the paint and fouling. Previewing both teams here.
Check on this week's national insider -- on Wichita State and our obsession with perfection. Plus notes from around college basketball. And this week's Big Ten power poll, in which the Gophers crash and burn a little bit.
Winning on the road is never easy. The Gophers know that, seeing as how they haven't managed to do so at Northwestern since 2008, despite the fact that the Wildcats have really never been competitive. Minnesota is also 1-5 in conference play right now, and the Gophers have just been brutal in foreign arenas.
But the Gophers also haven't been swept by Northwestern since the 2005-06 season. Two losses against the Wildcats now would essentially be the dagger. In that way, tonight is huge.
If Minnesota drops tonight's game, we can probably go ahead and start talking about the NIT. After tonight there are just five games remaining on the regular schedule, and the Gophers likely need four of those to make it into the NCAA tournament. So unless they go on some unforeseen winning rampage, they'll be putting away their dancing shoes with a loss.
Five things the Gophers need to do tonight to avoid getting embarassed by Northwestern (again):
1. Show life on the road: Per my article above, the Gophers have been just awful on the road this season, their only conference win coming against Penn State (and their only other road win occurring at Richmond way back in November). They need to exorcise those demons right now, and tonight seems like a good setting for it. The Wildcats have actually been really lackluster at home, going 2-4 there while going 3-3 on the road. The high school gym-like Welsh-Ryan Arena isn't exactly on par with most Big Ten schools when it comes to home-court advantage. Perhaps the biggest issue will be maintaining the energy, then, in a building that isn't fostering it. We saw a little of that flatness from the Gophers in State College, where they played way too close than the matchup dictated.
2. Reestablish inside game: What happened to the Gophers' inside presence they've installed so nicely over the last few weeks? Foul trouble killed Minnesota early against Wisconsin on Thursdayd with all three of their center options (Mo Walker, Elliott Eliason and Joey King) picking up two PFs in the first half. In the second, Walker was timid and looked scared to foul. But the Gophers NEED an aggressive Walker -- feeding him for easy buckets at the rim has become such a huge part of Minnesota's offense and frees up the team's plethora of guards on the perimeter. But even a 22-point performance from Andre Hollins wasn't enough to make up for the lacking in the paint.
3. Repeat performance from Dre: Speaking of which, Hollins looked pretty good in the Wisconsin game. He was the true silver lining of a Gophers showing that was otherwise pretty ugly. That fact is really encouraging for the Gophers, who were struggling bigtime from outside with their leading scorer out (severe ankle sprain) and then hobbled. If Minnesota can get it all together and are able to pound the ball in to the bigs as well as get Hollins good shots from wherever -- that's an offense that is tough to contain. None of this will be easy against Northwestern's lock-down man-to-man defense, though, which last time around made the Gophers and their super efficient offense look like fools.
4. Stop someone, anyone: We shouldn't have to talk about Northwestern's 307th ranked offense (kenpom) but we do. Because earlier this month, it too made the Gophers' look like fools. So much foolishness in that game. Against Minnesota's struggling defense, the Wildcats hit 43.5 percent of their shots from the field and 38.1 from three-point range. JerShon Cobb tied a career-high in points. Drew Crawford was Drew Crawford. Northwestern looked like a totally capable Big Ten team offensively instead of the horrific version they are on that end of the court. The Gophers have had the most success with their man-to-man defense in recent games, and it seems like coach Richard Pitino is slowly changing his tune about playing so much zone, zone, zone. Which is probably definitely a good thing.
5. Take care of the ball: Northwestern doesn't pressure the ball or try to force turnovers at all. That should be taken as a gift -- but the last time out, Minnesota was so careless with the ball, they might as well have been playing against a full-court press. The Gophers had eight turnovers -- almost all unforced -- in that one, all but nullifying the advantage. At the very least, Minnesota needs to handle the ball tonight.