There aren’t many games left before the Big Dance, so tweaking and gaining momentum is as important as anything.
Winning, of course, is at the top of the list, but considering the competition the Gophers will have for the next three games (two in the regular season, one in the Big Ten tourney), three more consecutive wins are probable.
Other things the Gophers need to work on until then:
Get the ideal lineup set in stone: Coach Tubby Smith has hinted that he’ll start the same lineup from senior day against Penn State (Austin Hollins, Julian Welch, Rodney Williams, Andre Ingram, Trevor Mbakwe) again tonight vs. Nebraska because he liked its size and effectiveness. I think in the least, he’ll start Julian Welch in place of Joe Coleman. But now is the time when the Gophers need to get a solid feel for whatever their tournament lineup is going to be. I agree that some change is probably good, but I don’t think Ingram – however good he’s played in the last couple games – belongs there with Andre Hollins sitting on the bench. Whatever direction Minnesota wants to go, however, they need to start using it and getting comfortable with it now.
Making the good ball-handling a trend: The Gophers have had consecutive games with just a few turnovers before – when they played Wisconsin on the road (9) and Nebraska at home (6), but they didn’t keep that trend alive past that. Smith has said he thinks the turnover issue has become a mental thing toward the end of the year, with guys almost expecting to lose the ball. Now that the Gophers have limited their miscues to just 10 in each of the last two games, both victories, making it a longer trend would really be a confidence boost going forward.
Solidify the rotation: Who is coming off the bench when? What are the Gophers’ best combinations? The Gophers’ substitutions in the Indiana game were methodical and effective and used only a portion of the bench. In a blowout against Penn State, Smith was able to use a long bench and spread the minutes around. But heading down the stretch, a return to some order could only give the team some much-needed continuity.
Trevor Mbakwe establishing himself as THE leader: This is it. We’ve been waiting for this all season, and talking about leadership as some vague, missing fact on this team. We’ve talked about Andre Hollins as a leader, Rodney Williams and Mbakwe, all in that role. But it’s the end of the year now, and it’s still someone unclear who is the one to motivate the team, to holler for that last shot, gather the troops and stop the bleeding. But Williams has been inconsistent, and has dealt with some shoulder soreness that may or may not still be bothering him. Hollins’ role is changing more than ever, meaning that his impact may be in flux. Mbakwe has had two consecutive monster game and he’s (dramatically) the oldest. The yoke falls on his shoulders now, and there’s no more time for experimentation or unselfishness in that department – it’s time for Trevor to take the reins, once and for all.
Learn how to force their game: We all know where the Gophers make their meal ticket: on the boards and in transition. If they can play like the up-tempo, athletic team they are – and avoid the half-court setting as much as possible -- they can be very successful a la Indiana. But it doesn’t always come naturally. The Gophers need to learn to force their will and dictate the pace and style of game.
Get some outside shots falling: They can fall back on this when they do wind up in the half-court set. But while the Gophers have been a little more consistent from around the perimeter, their 3-point percentage has still been pretty lackluster (making nine of 37 attempts for 24 percent in the last two games). Austin Hollins, who has been in a bit of a shooting slump is a big part of that. The only thing they can do is keep putting them up there.
Other notes on tonight’s game:
- Tonight is a homecoming for Elliott Eliason, who is originally from Chadron, Nebraska. He expects a lot of friends and family in attendance.
- Eliason had a bit of a sore throat on Monday, but is expected to play. Smith has also been dealing with a sore throat, but should be fine.
- Wednesday is senior night for Nebraska, and the last game the Huskers will play at the Bob Devaney Center with the brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena set to open next season. Nebraska will honor its three seniors: Andre Almeida, Dylan Talley and Brandon Ubel.
- Last time around, the Gophers walloped Nebraska to the tune of 84-65, with Williams having his best game of the season and notching a Big Ten scoring high with 23 points. But Ray Gallegos was a true bright spot for the Huskers, lighting the Gophers up for 30 points on six 3-pointers. You can bet Gallegos will be a focus for the Gophers tonight. The guard is coming off another big performance – leading all players with 23 points in Nebraska’s close loss to Illinois, and hitting, again, six 3-pointers. More notes on the matchup here.
- The Huskers played a defensive zone against the Gophers for significant stretches the last time around. With Nebraska not quite as skilled in its zone as, say, Iowa, the Gophers were able to penetrate it. Have the Huskers improved in that regard? They will likely try to use that strategy once more to slow Minnesota down.
*Tonight’s game is on Big Ten Network
*Listen to tonight’s game live on 1500 a.m. I’ll be on at 6:30 with Tom Pelissero previewing the game.
*In today’s Star Tribune: simplifying the offense will help the Gophers
*Smith could be starting Julian Welch and Andre Ingram tonight.
*On the blog: Gophers probably safe for the NCAA tournament no matter what.
*This week’s aMAILia BAG.
*How would a Gophers tie in the Big Ten be solved?