Check out my preview on all of the NIT Season Tipoff teams here.

All the off-court troubles that have come down on Minnesota in the last 48 hours have been enough to make heads spin (mine included).

But major team crisis or not, there is a game to be played tonight, and a challenging one at that.

Earlier this week, Gophers coach Richard Pitino said he believes St. John's athletic starting five -- packed with talented guards and a big, shot-blocking center -- might be every bit as good as Louisville's, which ran Minnesota off the court in the season opener. 

"They've got guys in their starting five that can play in the NBA," Pitino said. "Chris Obekpa is averaging five blocks [a game]. He's an NBA legit prospect. Sir'Dominic Pointer does a little bit about everything. He may be one of their best all-around players. D'Angelo Harrison is one of the best shooters in the country. And Rasheed Jordan is a great guard. It's going to be a very tough matchup."

Six things to watch in tonight's game:

*Mood. The team was just hit by some very shocking and emotional news, and now they have to play in one of the biggest games of the season. Will they be able to tuck in their chins and go to work when they step onto the court at Madison Square Garden? We'll find out.

*Shot selection. Minnesota's shooting decisions were perhaps its biggest issue in the slow start against UMBC last week, with Carlos Morris (3-for-11) being the "main culprit," Pitino said. In that game, the Gophers shot just 40 percent from the field -- tied for the worst of the year with the Louisville game. Minnesota will need to make their shots count against the much-tougher Red Storm.

*Fouls. Against driving teams, Minnesota has had a tough time defending aggressively without fouling. The Gophers were in foul trouble vs. Louisville. It happened again vs. UMBC. And that was problematic enough. But if Minnesota's backcourt gets into foul trouble tonight, it will be even more damaging with the absence of Daquein McNeil, who was averaging 18.8 minutes a game as a key piece of the guard rotation. One of Minnesota's biggest advantages over St. John's was its depth and strong defensive presence off the bench. Without McNeil, that advantage is lessened substantially.

*Mismatches. St. John's has been playing a very small lineup with some interesting personnel. Sir'Dominic pointer, a 6-foot-6 athletic wing-type player, will man the starting power forward spot. Rasheed Jordan is a 6-foot-5 point guard. "Defensively it's a nightmare," Pitino said. "The way that they take you off the bounce at all four positions is something we're certainly very concerned about. When a team is very good at playing small, it's very hard to go against, so we've got to be ready to defend at all five positions."

*Environment. St. John's plays most of its home games at Madison Square Garden. How many of those regular-season fans will pile up in the stands? Did Gophers fans travel? "I think it will have the feel of a home game," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "We'll sit on the same bench in terms of our regular-season games. We don't expect much of a departure from our traditional routine with regards to game preparation and playing in the Garden."

*Leadership. Pitino has publicly said he wants to see his leaders lead more. Tonight, with the team reeling from the recent sad drama, that will be more important than ever. Point guard DeAndre Mathieu was particularly involved with McNeil in a mentorship-type role. Earlier today, he tweeted "All we can do is pray." An emotional player normally, Mathieu will need to control his emotions -- and the team's -- on Wednesday if Minnesota wants a chance.

Prediction: St. John's 68, Minnesota 52.

Older Post

Opening Tipoff: Five things leading up to tonight's showdown at MSG

Newer Post

Gophers postgame: Minnesota gives its worst of the year vs. St. John's