Hoosiers big men will be a big handful

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 5:10 AM

The Gophers' showdown with Indiana might just come down to the battle in the middle between Trevor Mbakwe and Cody Zeller.

hide

Indiana's Cody Zeller (center), Gophers forward Rodney Williams

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

BLOOMINGTON, IND. - Friday, in preparation for the Gophers' arrival to Indiana, a recording of the same Assembly Hall matchup from a year ago -- a 77-74 Minnesota upset of what was the No. 7 team in the country -- incited the Hoosiers to jog their memories and reignite their fire.

But perhaps the most meaningful individual matchup in Saturday's clash between top-10 teams can't be previewed on film.

A year ago, Trevor Mbakwe was doing what the Hoosiers were doing in the locker room on Friday: watching from the bench. This time around, the Gophers senior forward has retaken his spot as a major focus of the team, and going against Indiana star Cody Zeller, Mbakwe's play likely will be a critical aspect of the outcome if the Gophers are to rekindle any of last year's magic.

"He's very talented," Zeller said. "He's one of the strongest guys, just from talking to these guys that have played against him. ... It's going to be one of the toughest games we've had all year -- obviously with the teams they've beat already, they've already proved themselves. They have a very tough team."

Sounds like the words of a modest man, but Zeller shouldn't be. The 7-footer has been huge for the Hoosiers in his sophomore season, leading the team -- one with a roster arguably even more loaded and balanced than the Gophers' -- at 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds a game, while making 62.7 percent of his shots (84-for-134). Paired with 6-9 Christian Watford and his 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Indiana can fully boast one of the strongest frontcourts in the country, and one that towers over 6-7 Rodney Williams and 6-8 Mbakwe.

But where the Gophers duo can use athleticism and quickness to its advantage against bigger frontcourts, that advantage figures to disappear against Indiana.

"Their guys are really quick for bigs," said Mbakwe, noting it as another similarity between Indiana and the Gophers, along with the fact that the Hoosiers use their depth, balance and athleticism to get out in transition.

What the Gophers lack in size, though, they make up for in sheer grit, Indiana coach Tom Crean said.

"They may not be prototype size, but when you take the height out, and you put the length, the leverage, the quickness, the speed, their front line doesn't take a backseat to anybody," Crean said, noting Mbakwe's impressive wingspan.

Add in, too, that the Gophers approach bigger-cut opponents with the group mentality of a nest of termites taking down a house. Mbakwe has watched plenty of game tape on Zeller and said he is as prepared as he can be for the challenge -- but the truth is, the task won't be solely left up to him.

This season, the Gophers have excelled in help defense and gang rebounding, a situation Crean refers to as a "fist fight" for any Gophers opponent. On the defensive boards, the Gophers have actually dramatically improved in recent games -- going from grabbing 60.8 percent of the available defensive rebounds in the first nine games to 71.7 percent now in the past seven.

"We've got to go in there and hit them first," Williams said. "We can't let them come in and make contact first, because we're usually going in against guys that are bigger than us. But we get a lot of help from our guards as well -- they come down and crank down on the bigs too."

Only Georgia and Coppin State have held Zeller to fewer than 13 points this season, as the sophomore getting his touches has become almost like clockwork. The Gophers only hope to keep him from doing anything too wild.

"You're not going to stop a guy like [Zeller]," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "You just want to contain him and not let him have a game like [Mason Plumlee and his 20 points and 17 rebounds in the Bahamas] at Duke did, which is what he's capable of doing."

  • COLLEGE BASKETBALL NO. 8 GOPHERS AT NO. 5 INDIANA • 11 a.m. today • Assembly Hall • TV: BTN (1500-AM)

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Minnesota 94 FINAL
Philadelphia 103
Houston 93 FINAL
Boston 87
Portland 99 FINAL
Atlanta 105
Sacramento 90 FINAL
Cleveland 101
Toronto 127 FINAL
Brooklyn 122
Dallas 93 FINAL
Miami 72
LA Clippers 103 FINAL
New Orleans 108
Golden State 100 FINAL
Utah 110
Chicago 93 FINAL
Phoenix 99
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL(OT)
New Jersey 1
St. Louis 3 FINAL(SO)
Carolina 2
Nashville 0 FINAL
Colorado 3
Buffalo 2 FINAL
Vancouver 5
Chicago 4 FINAL
Anaheim 1
Harvard 75 FINAL
Princeton 72
Quinnipiac 57 FINAL
Canisius 63
Brown 49 FINAL
Cornell 57
Siena 79 FINAL
Manhattan 87
Marist 65 FINAL
Niagara 61
Dartmouth 51 FINAL
Penn 58
Oregon 68 FINAL
Arizona State 67
Yale 63 FINAL
Columbia 59
Monmouth 60 FINAL
Fairfield 59
IUPUI 59 FINAL
Western Ill 63
Oregon State 34 FINAL
Arizona 57
Kent State 55 FINAL
Buffalo 80
Canisius 75 FINAL
Monmouth 58
Butler 67 FINAL
Providence 59
Cornell 65 FINAL
Brown 52
Columbia 47 FINAL
Yale 55
Coll of Charleston 47 FINAL
Drexel 64
Penn 55 FINAL
Dartmouth 39
Elon 60 FINAL
James Madison 89
(19) Princeton 96 FINAL
Harvard 46
(9) Florida State 82 FINAL
Georgia Tech 62
Quinnipiac 87 FINAL
Siena 62
Richmond 54 FINAL
Rhode Island 50
Loyola-Chicago 58 FINAL
Southern Ill 64
Georgetown 52 FINAL
DePaul 93
Villanova 75 FINAL
Marquette 59
Wichita State 70 FINAL
Northern Iowa 51
Xavier 65 FINAL
Creighton 74
Bradley 58 FINAL
Illinois State 55
Missouri State 89 FINAL
Drake 94
Arizona 48 FINAL
Utah 62
(11) Arizona State 68 FINAL
Colorado 60

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: How should Timberwolves fans greet Kevin Love on Saturday?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close