The selection show is just a few hours away (5 p.m. on Ch. 4), and while some Gophers fans may have expected their team to sneakily disappear from the brackets-that-be in the middle of the night, Minnesota remains, and really rather solidly.
Both major brackets – ESPN Joe Lunardi’s and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm’s – still each have the Gophers as a 10-seed in the Big Dance, which means they would play a 7-seed. This thing is, of course, ever changing (but perhaps not too drastically today), but I thought I’d dive into some of the teams currently listed as 7-seeds to see how they would compare with the Gophers were that to happen.
Let’s take a look:
Toughest matchup: VCU
Best matchup: Memphis
What I most want to see: UNC
Most likely to make Twitter explode/cause an angry mob in Minnesota: Also VCU
Creighton: The Jays have plowed through their conference, but with the Missouri Valley a bit down this year, it’s hard to tell just how much they’ve been tested. They do have wins over California and Wisconsin, which is currently running the gamut in the Big Ten tournament. The Jays, who niftily took the MVC championship a week ago, have the best effective field goal percentage in the nation (59.1), the best 3-pointer percentage (42.1) and manage an outstanding 1.17 points per possession. Since the Gophers are pretty terrible at getting out on the threes, their best shot in this case might just be to smother and limit Doug McDermott (who is third in the nation in scoring and contributes 30 percent of the team’s scoring as an average) as well as Gregory Echenique down low and force the rest of the team to light it up from behind the arc. Creighton has struggled in that position before. Lucky for the Gophers, the BlueJays don’t generate a lot of turnovers, and they’re not a great rebounding team.
UNC: I can’t deny that I would love to see this matchup, since, well, it would be the head-to-head of the team I follow around currently and the one that I grew up watching. Both new athletic director Norwood Teague and senior associate AD Mike Ellis have Tarheel ties as well (both went to school there and Teague was associate AD at one point, while Ellis was a manager of the basketball team under Dean Smith). The Tarheels were teetering pretty close to the bubble edge for a while there, but they have rebounded nicely after Roy Williams started going with a smaller lineup (with PJ Hairston shifting from wing to power forward). It was the kind of mid-season, mid-struggles adjustments Gophers fans were hoping to see from Tubby Smith, but didn’t (until he decided to use a “senior” lineup for two games). Since then, the Tarheels are 8-2 and have made it to the ACC Championship game where they will play Miami today. The Heels have their share of issues – they’ve had the tendency to start slow at some points this season (sound familiar?) and freshman point guard Marcus Paige has been hot and cold. But if they’re shooting well from the outside, watch out. North Carolina attempts an average of 19.8 three-pointers a game, and has been making 37.1 percent of them.
UCLA: Can the Bruins play without Jordan Adams, now that their leading scorer and best all-around player is out for the season with a broken foot? Saturday wasn’t a positive indication in that regard, when UCLA fell, 78-69 to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament after coming within six with just under four minutes to play. Adams was one of the major guys that got the Bruins, who struggled early in the season, back on track, but UCLA is still talented without him. Normal Powell, the sophomore guard who is replacing Adams in the starting lineup, is no pushover. Powell contributed 10 points and four rebounds in a game in which all starters scored in double digits – but Oregon got 20 points from Carlos Emory (who averages 11) and a season-high 19 from Jonathan Loyd (who averages 4.9). Larry Drew II, vastly improved at the point guard position this year, and Shabazz Muhammad will have to step up more in the tournament – but if the Gophers were to get this matchup, they’d be wrong to think they’ve got it easy. UCLA has found a new toughness in the second half of the season, and makes its two-point shots at 60.9 percent of the time (12th in the nation).
VCU: If this matchup happened, I think my iPhone might explode from all the Twitter “havoc” – see what I did there? – with all you Gophers fans salivating to compare the coaching styles of Tubby Smith and Shaka Smart in an up-close head-to-head. Oh, yes, what a ball that would be. VCU’s entire brand is based around the Rams specializing in creating turnovers (Uh, I don’t know, do you guys think that would be a problem?) VCU opponents have coughed up the ball on 28.1 percent of their possessions. Considering the Gophers “only” turn it over on 21.7 percent of their possessions (and we know what that looks like), that is scary. In theory, the Rams’ style of running the floor would play into the strengths of the Gophers, who look best in transition. But Minnesota really only does well when players aren’t rushed in those situations – that’s the key, being quick but not hurried. VCU hurries you. They will snatch it away from you in transition. They record 11.9 steals a game (wow!), best in the country. And for as solid as the Rams are defensively, they might actually be better offensively, scoring an average of 78 points a game on 1.12 points per possession. Can they beat St. Louis today in the A-10 championship? Now that will be interesting.
Butler: Speaking of St. Louis, the Butler Bulldogs were the latest victim, getting overwhelmed 67-56 on Saturday. I plan to have St. Louis go far in my bracket this year. Butler has dropped off a little this season (while staying a sure NCAA team), but the Bulldogs haven’t had it easy. They’ve dealt with injuries to their three leading scorers this year, and thus ups and downs. Now that Rotnei Clarke has returned, his presence has stabilized the group somewhat, and Butler finished the regular season with two wins before winning a pair in the conference tournament. But the Bulldogs are certainly not unbeatable. One of the reoccurring issues for this bunch is getting overwhelmed/pushed around in the paint, and Butler can be susceptible to physicality there. Perhaps the biggest struggles for Minnesota would come from Butler’s improved defense and Brad Stevens’ ability to effectively use a 2-3 zone (did I just see a whole mass of Gophers fans cringe?). Also, Roosevelt Jones has been dealing with a sore shoulder and his status is up in the air.
Memphis: Ah yes, remember these guys? Andre Hollins went completely out of his mind and scored 41 points against them– remember that? It was when you were strutting the beaches of the Bahamas, sipping your frozen adult beverage and thinking ‘Hey, these Gophers might be pretty good this year.’ Well now you’re back in the frozen tundra that is Minnesota and you’ve watched this team (probably) limp into the NCAA tournament and there are no tiny umbrellas in sight and suddenly, well, you’re a little more nervous about even the prospect of a matchup that the Gophers utterly dismantled in November. Well, I still think it might be the best-case scenario for the Minnesota lads. The Tigers zipped through Conference USA this season, but of course, many have questioned Memphis’ credentials anyway because, well, their league is pretty terrible and the team has a lot of unknowns otherwise. Memphis can seem lackadaisical at times (you’ve never seen that from your squad, right Gophers fans?) and they haven’t exactly blown out their sub-par competition. Joe Jackson has been great at point guard and Chris Crawford has been stellar in the conference tournament, but while the Gophers are a different team now, I think they still have a chance. The teams are actually fairly similar. Memphis is a squad of leapers – they are eighth in the nation in blocked shots (Gophers are ninth) with 11.1 and they rebound pretty well (they actually out-rebounded the Gophers in the Bahamas). But they’re also sloppy, turning over the ball on 20.8 percent of their possessions. They have the edge in the first and third categories I just mentioned but, well, they haven’t been playing Big Ten teams. SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE (yes, I am).