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